REVIEW

All the Young Men, the story of HIV/AIDS activist Ruth Coker Burks, is a reminder of the good in humanity

Ruth Coker Burks at a Broadway Sings For Pride event in New York. Picture: Getty Images
Ruth Coker Burks at a Broadway Sings For Pride event in New York. Picture: Getty Images

In 1987, Princess Diana rose above the problems of family - her own and her husband's - by being seen to meet and shake hands with patients suffering from HIV/AIDS. There was courage in the act, because at that time there was a widespread view that the infection could be spread by casual contact, and medical workers were required to wear layers of protective clothing.

That happened in London. We now go back a year or two to rural Arkansas in the heart of America's south. To give an idea of where we are, it may help to know that more than 60 per cent of the state's residents voted for Trump in the 2020 election. Visiting her friend in hospital, Ruth Coker Burks hears a young man crying in a room while three nurses are drawing straws to work out which of them will go to his aid. Ruth ignores them, walks into the room and takes the hand of the young man who thinks she is his mother. His name is Jimmy, his mother refuses to visit him, and he dies the next day, still attended by Ruth.

Thus begins some 10 years of work by this extraordinary young woman on behalf of men suffering from AIDS. Like Jimmy, their families in most cases refuse to have anything to do with them, and she herself is ostracised by her community. She learns to advocate on behalf of sick young men who have lost their jobs because of their illness; just as significantly visits them and helps to make their final days less awful. She also manages to distribute condoms and information about safe sex to the young people she meets.

Then there is Ruth's daughter Allison; only six when this starts, she lives with her father at weekends, but that stops after he is killed in a car crash. Allison is not invited to birthday parties or to play with her friends, but she develops friendships with some of the young men her mother is caring for. At the end of the book, we learn that she is happily married and is the mother of three children.

Most of the story takes place over a 10-year period and Ruth has few helpers. After that, the treatment for HIV has greatly improved and society is less nervous about it. In the second half of that period, much of the action takes place among the clienteles and visitors to Our House, a bar that is frequented by members of the gay community and specialises in drag queen performances to the enthusiastic approval of the audiences.

This is the kind of book that reminds you that the human race still produces genuinely good people. You may feel critical of the way that her actions affect the childhood of her daughter, but that child seems unfazed by her lack of friends of her own age and has grown up with the lessons of human kindness she learned from her mother.

This story HIV/AIDS activist a reminder of good in people first appeared on The Canberra Times.