On the eve of the publication of her memoir of AIDS, love, and chosen family in the American South, I spoke to Ruth Coker Burks about the hospital encounter that changed everything. It was Friday afternoon for me, but morning in Ruth’s home. A young friend was helping her set up tech for the interview and her dog was running around the room. The US election was going on, with signs of a Biden win, but the vote still far too close to count.
When her story began, Ruth was in her mid-twenties, a single mother selling time-share housing in Arkansas. She had already asked her gay cousin about the ‘disease that was killing gay men,’ but was told it was only affecting the ‘leather guys.’ ‘No one knew where it was coming from,’ she says.
While visiting her friend Bonnie in the hospital, Ruth was pacing the floor and noticed a door wrapped in red plastic, like biohazard tape. Outside, the nurses were drawing straws to decide who would attend to the patient inside. ‘I had never seen that at all, so I finally snuck into his room. And he was so skeletal I couldn’t tell him from the sheets, really.’ Ruth tried to call the young man’s mother and tell her he was dying. It became clear that his mother wasn’t coming. When she returned, the young man – Jimmy – said, ‘Oh, Momma, I knew you’d come.’ Ruth’s life changed at that moment, but she didn’t know what was being set in motion.
‘Did I ever think I would end up being interviewed by someone in England, at a publishing house? No! I thought I’d just go back to my life, doing my civic duties. When you set out to do something, you never think it’s going to be heroic. You follow your heart.’
When I asked Ruth what all the young men, her ‘guys’ – would think of her book, I watched her face light up across thousands of miles as she spoke about how happy it would make them, how she would 'love on 'em.' I could almost see them in that sunlit room with her, and I knew she could too. Described as a cross between Erin Brockovich and Dallas Buyer’s Club, Ruth’s story is unique and inspiring, more necessary than ever in these times. As she says, ‘Tough times don’t last, but tough people do.’
You can listen to my interview with Ruth Coker Burks on Out in South London right here and you can also read Olivia Laing's recent review of All The Young Men in The Guardian. All The Young Men is out now from Trapeze Books.