As I read All the Young Men, Ruth Coker Burks’ memoir of inadvertently becoming central-west Arkansas’ one-woman AIDS services provider in the dark years of the mid-to-late ’80s and early-to-mid-’90s, I could only think of the PTSD she and her then-young daughter, Allison, who accompanied her on her care visits, would suffer later in life. And indeed, when I spoke on the phone shortly before Christmas with Burks and her cowriter, the talented POZ magazine alum and celeb biographer Kevin Carr O’Leary, I wasn’t surprised to learn that those difficult years have stamped themselves on her forever after—and that working on this book with O’Leary was, in fact, the first time she’d ever processed these events since they occurred more than 25 years ago.
And what events they were. Told with novelistic depth and vividness in and around Hot Springs, Arkansas, Men recounts Burks’ story of how randomly stepping into the hospital room of a dying, shunned AIDS patient named Jimmy one night in 1986 led this young single mom into a near-decade of constant (and unpaid, barely funded) service and support for Arkansas AIDS patients. She walked into his room to sit with him and hold his hand, and then she took it upon herself to bury his ashes in her family cemetery plot because nobody else, including his family, wanted anything to do with him. But it wasn’t just Jimmy—her calling included burying many more, at a time when locals, including so-called devout Christian churchgoers, treated people with AIDS, particularly gay men and drug users, with revulsion and cruelty. For her association with them, Burks had crosses burned on her front lawn more than once, and her daughter was ostracized at school.
But the book is also filled with joy and sparkle, as Burks’ safe-sex efforts lead her into Our House, the local gay bar, where big-haired drag queens—particularly one named Marilyn Morrell, né Billy—become Burks’ fun-loving chosen family.
O’Leary and Burks, who lives in Arkansas again after decamping to Florida for several years, talked to TheBody for more than an hour about Burks’ extraordinary unasked-for calling, the pain and catharsis of telling a story she’d never fully told before, and why she wants the book to be not only a document of what happened in an overlooked corner of the U.S. epidemic—but a living tribute to all those fabulous young men she still misses so much.
Tim Murphy: Ruth and Kevin, thanks for taking time right before the holidays to talk to us. Ruth, where do I begin? I was up until 1 a.m. last night finishing your incredible story, and I have so many feelings about you. One thing I would like to ask you right off is a question you say in the book that you hate when people ask, which is, why did you do this? It’s one thing to do a random act of kindness, such as you did for Jimmy, but it’s another to turn it into your life’s work, especially when struggling to pay the rent and raise a child alone. You were raised in the same conservative church setting as many people in your story. What made you different?
Ruth Coker Burks: I’m sure it has to do with my upbringing, the cruelty I faced from my own mother [who was bipolar and impulsively abused her, such as by chopping off all her hair]. And the hate my mother and brother had for each other; my mother shot off Roman candles when my brother died. I grew up with that and knew I didn’t want to be a part of it. Plus, people didn’t like my mother and took it out on me. So I knew the hate that [gay men with AIDS] were facing.
Murphy: Did you have the same empathetic tendencies before that pivotal moment in 1986 when you stepped into Jimmy’s room while visiting a female friend in the hospital?
Burks: Oh, yeah, I’ll take in any animal, mend a bird’s broken wing. I have four cats because they just came to my house and I couldn’t not feed and care for them. As for people, I can see suffering and pain when others can’t or won’t. Growing up, I had to watch my mother constantly for signals of her mental illness. She was also legally blind, so I was her eyes and would describe things to her, so I tend to observe things closely.
Murphy: What did you know about AIDS before that moment with Jimmy in 1986?
Burks: Probably more than anybody in Arkansas, because I had a gay cousin in Hawaii who was a hairdresser. First time I visited him, he said to me, “Oh, honey, you need to be a blonde.” And I remember asking him about this new disease that was hitting gay men, and he said, “That’s just the leather guys in San Francisco.” I thought, “What’s a leather guy?” Thankfully, he never got it and he’s still alive and living in Hawaii, but he did put it on my radar, and I was always attuned to it when I heard about it on TV.
Murphy: Right. So I have to admit that when we “meet” you at the beginning of the book, a very sexy young divorcée and single mom who’s looked askance at a bit by your fellow churchgoers, I did think a bit about the song and the TV show Harper Valley PTA, which certainly dates me. But did you feel that way?
Burks: Everybody thought I was sleeping with their husband, and they should’ve been proud of me, ’cause every time their husbands hit on me, I turned them down. And not much has changed around here, all these years later. My next-door neighbor is a pastor, a young guy, and he just came out [as gay], and they wanted to hang him.
Murphy: But it also seems that at some point you made a kind of mental break from the conservative values of the community and just lived your own version of a Christian life. Was there a specific moment when you were kind of radicalized or politicized?
Burks: I’ve always known that certain people were marginalized. My mother and I used to go over to the Black side of town for barbecue or if our shoes needed mending. We’d stop in to say hi to her friends. So I always knew there were haves and have-nots, and my mother would say to me again and again, “If you’re ever in trouble, don’t go to church—go to the streets.” Which means, if you need space for a support group, don’t go to the pastor—go to the local bar to ask for a corner to sit in. Things like that.
Murphy: That’s interesting you bring that up, because the world the book is set in does seem predominantly white, and I was going to ask how mixed were all the folks with AIDS whose paths you crossed.
Burks: I had several Black patients, as well as women [many of whom were Hot Springs strippers and sex workers]. I’ll never forget a woman named Deborah who had 3-year-old twins, one HIV positive and the other negative, as well as an 11-year-old son. “What’s going to happen to my children when I die?” she would ask me. I had no answers. I went up to the town she lived in, a really white part of the state, and poked around, and nobody was going to help. I guess the kids went into the social services system. Another patient of mine was a man named Felton Grant. Once, I went to pick him up to take him to the doctor, and he was sitting on the bus naked. All the passengers were horrified. So I said, “Felton, what’s up?” He said, “You’re late.” I said, “No, I’m not.” So I got him off the bus and to his appointment.
Murphy: There’s a lot of gallows humor like that in your book, like the time your immigrant patient Javier is threatening to jump off the roof, and you talk him down through reverse psychology.
Burks: Oh yes, I called it learning “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “Gilligan’s Island.”
Murphy: And town secrets are such a theme in the book. The story you tell about the doctor who secretly helped you test people for HIV but then died young of very mysterious circumstances is such an example, and I don’t want to say more, in order not to spoil. [Note: Some names are changed throughout the book.]
Burks: Yeah, he had a brother who died of AIDS, and he was on the board of the only hospice in town, and he did get his brother into it. And when he died, I knew he kept his little black book in his car, which I tried to get ahold of before his wife did, which I could not. In high school, he did the physical exams for the football team, and parents wouldn’t let their kids be examined by him.
Murphy: You no longer live in Hot Springs, correct?
Burks: No. Hot Springs is now four and a half hours south of me. Unless we’re late to the airport, and then it’s three. Right, Kevin?
Kevin Carr O’Leary: When I went down there from Brooklyn and finally met Paul, who managed Our House, the gay/drag bar, and who was boyfriends with Billy, I didn’t want the conversation to end, so I was running late for the airport. But Ruth drove like crazy and got me there in time.
Murphy: Ruth, who are you still in touch with from the period in the book?
Burks: No one—seriously. Paul and I stayed friendly, but we never spoke of that time. We all just licked our wounds and never talked about it, the trauma of it. And nobody wanted to hear about it.
Murphy: But it does seem that in recent years, there’s been a hunger to both tell and hear the stories from those times, now that a few decades have passed. It’s a bit like the Holocaust or the Vietnam War in the sense that it always seems people need about 20 or 25 years after a trauma or tragedy to start talking about it, writing about it, making films about it, making sense of it.
Burks: That’s true, and it’s so remarkable, I don’t even know what to say. Paul and I told this story for StoryCorps because I’d had a stroke a decade ago, after which the doctors said, “You have a 70% chance of dying, so settle your affairs.” But a decade later, I’m good. Everyone knew that AIDS happened in San Francisco and New York. But many people came home to die, and at the time, after Ryan White [CARE Act] was passed in 1990, all the AIDS support money was going to the big cities based on where the diagnoses had occurred. But dying was the expensive part, and we didn’t get a penny down here. At a conference in New York, I stressed the importance of families of AIDS patients getting financial support, and a New York City gay man laid me out about how “people with AIDS have no families.” That wasn’t true.
Murphy: Yes, the book gives the impression that you never got much support from the state or national professional AIDS services infrastructure.
Burks: When Ryan White money became available, everyone came out of the woodwork and suddenly loved AIDS patients. This woman came into Hot Springs, this carpetbagger chaplain who started an organization in New Orleans. They did some good, educating very softly to not offend people. The first $250,000 they got went to three salaries—three women with husbands who didn’t need to make that kind of money off the backs of sick and dying people they didn’t even like, people they would trot out to speak and raise money for them who they would drop as soon as things stopped working out. When I was the executive director of Helping People With AIDS here in Arkansas, I didn’t take a salary. One-hundred percent of our money went out to the public.
Murphy: I love the parts of the book where you, a blonde and coiffed straight woman, start infiltrating the gay drag bar, Our House, in order to bring in condoms and set up a safe-sex table. What was that like?
Burks: In the beginning, they didn’t know if I was coming to do a “gotcha” story for TV, or to out people. I was pretty back then, with long, blonde hair, and I dressed nice. They thought I was some honest-to-God, Bible-thumping church woman. So they were cautious, but they welcomed me, and when I was finally “in,” it was just amazing. I feel sorry for people who don’t accept LGBT people, because they’re the most wonderful friends you could ever have.
Murphy: Have you maintained ties with the LGBT community?
Burks: Yes. I’m near Fayetteville now, a college town that had 25,000 people at the Pride parade the year before last. Everyone went. And right now, as we speak, I have a former Miss Gay Arkansas 2013 and his husband rearranging my house for me. They’re sprinkling magic dust in my house. I only have two straight friends—all the rest have passed away.
Murphy: Kevin, I’m curious to hear about how you and Ruth worked together on this book. It reads very novelistically, with whole encounters and conversations intact.
O’Leary: I’ve never talked to someone for a book more than Ruth, marathon-long calls in the beginning.
Burks: They were nothing but him listening to me cry, all my snot and tears.
O’Leary: Ruth faults herself sometimes for telling the same stories over and over, but in fact, she hadn’t told these stories for so long that every time she did, something new would come out. But it wasn’t until I went to Hot Springs that I really saw Ruth in action and understood how she did what she did. We were walking and we saw a homeless woman with a kid. I’m a New Yorker, where we give a homeless person some money and move on. But with Ruth, it was a full meeting where she talked to the woman about where she could get food stamps, housing assistance, and furniture. They became Facebook friends and she gives me updates on her. This is what she does all the time.
But as for the book, we decided we were going to cover the period 1986 to 1993, the year Billy died. The book is partly a love story between Ruth and Billy. Ruth just adored him and felt that loss very viscerally.
Murphy: Ruth, what did you do after 1993?
Burks: I stayed in Hot Springs and worked on a couple of movie sets, which was extremely fun, then I worked for a funeral home, where I did everything but embalm. I loved it. I thought, “Wow, you can get paid for this?” Then after my mother died and Allison moved to Florida, I did, too—ended up in Orlando, partly because they hadn’t had a hurricane since 1961. Then when I got there, they had four category-3 hurricanes in six weeks.
Murphy: Ruth, you depict such a cruelly conservative South in the ’80s and ’90s. Has the region changed?
Burks: It had until Trump got in office, then everyone literally feared for their lives. Gay men started marrying women again just so people wouldn’t know they were gay. I had crosses burned on my yard in the ’80s and ’90s, and now we have people driving around in trucks with their MAGA flags.
Murphy: Right. Ruth, one thing I wondered reading your book was whether you and Allison suffered a lot of trauma in the years after caring for so many people who died.
Burks: It’s been horrible. I think of [my friends who died] all the time. Kevin was able to channel them so perfectly—I can even smell their cologne again. But with [the book process] came the trauma of meeting them again, getting to know them again, falling in love with them and losing them again. I was in Little Rock for an awards ceremony back then and took Allison with me when she was 10. I would wake up screaming. After the third time this happened, she asked me, “Is this why you have to take something to sleep?” I said yes. I’ve had a stroke, blood clots in both lungs.
Murphy: Did you ever seek out therapy?
Burks: Oh, yeah. But they didn’t know anything about AIDS—they were way too young. I couldn’t give them that trauma.
Murphy: What was it like bringing up all the memories with Kevin?
Burks: It was so good, but all the memories and the meanness came back. In the community, I was the face of not only AIDS but of the gay world, and people hated me as much as they hated gay people. I’m the one who heard them say, “Those dirty people, they deserve it, it’s God’s punishment.” And if someone was mad in the gay community, I got the ass-whupping they wanted to give to someone else. I burdened Kevin with my whole story [cries]. Before him, I had no one to talk to about this. My PTSD is through the roof from writing the book. But it’s what I signed up for [when I embarked on the project]. It’s still so raw.
Murphy: Yes, I definitely hear that in your voice. Well, another aspect of the book is your friendship since childhood with Bill Clinton, who went of course from Arkansas governor to president of the U.S. You always had his ear, and he promised you he would do right by people with AIDS once in the White House. Did he?
Burks: I thought he was just dynamite. So many people are alive today because of Bill Clinton. Younger people might get upset to hear that, because he instituted “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” [the defunct ban on gays in the military], but that was the only thing he could do at the time politically. It softened people up [and paved the way toward the eventual end of the ban in 2011].
Murphy: Another theme of the book is Christianity and churchgoing versus real compassion. In the book, you really struggle with the limits of empathy in the church you went to. Is there religion or spirituality in your life today?
Burks: My spirituality is as good as it ever was, if not better. I’ve come out the other side, knowing that God is there, Jesus is there. You know, Christ could’ve come back as one of the men [I cared for]. Anyone had the opportunity to do what I did. They could’ve taken care of the body of Christ and not even known it. Those were just some very shallow people. It was a country-club church, but it is where some of my help came from, the movers and shakers of the community. I don’t go to church today, though I do miss the pomp and circumstance, the robes and candles. If you’re gonna go to a show, you should get your money’s worth.
Murphy: Do you do any sort of service nowadays?
Burks: Nobody wants me to, when they find out my history. I’m serious. “What does your husband do?” “I don’t have one.” And that’s it. But I have found in the LGBT community the body of Christ, more so than I’ve ever seen in any church. Even though they’ve been thrown out of their families, spit on, mistreated, they still have faith in Jesus and faith in God and they form their own [faith community] at a bar.
Murphy: Ruth, you’ve led an extraordinary life. How do you feel about it up to this point?
Burks: I feel good about it. I have no regrets. Why have regrets? A lot of my life choices were not good, better, best. They were sucks, sucks bad, or sucks not-so-bad. I have my faith and I did the best I could, is all I can say. I did what Christ asked me to do.
Murphy: And now you have this extraordinary story of what you did on the record for the ages in the form of this book. What do you want to come of the book?
Burks: I want people to know what happened—to know that real human beings had real lives, even if they were different from us. They were still human beings. The men who came back to rural America—I want them remembered. I want people to think, “Would my son be helping me cook for Christmas today? What would he be like today?”
And I want people to know that they can do the same thing I did. Put down your iPhone and open your eyes. There’s plenty of opportunity to do what I did. I’m not a superhero. I’m just a normal, regular person.
All the Young Men can be bought via Amazon or independent bookstore website Indie Bound.