I get a lot of book recommendations, all of which I write down and tuck away in my many hiding spots. The list gets longer, and the stack of books on the nightstand gets taller. I slowly work my way through books that are “for me”, books “for my students”, and professional development books for work. I tend to try to go through them in the order I buy them, because that’s just how my brain works.
This book, however, did not work its way to the top of the pile easily – it landed in my hands with a thud. From the front cover, I knew this book was going to be an emotional teardown. I knew it would rip me apart at the seams, but I was not expecting it to stitched me back together again with new knowledge, new insight, and new respect for allies and their efforts.
One of my most trusted friends dropped this book in my hand with a warning that sounded something along the lines of “I promise you’ll cry, but I also promise you’ll laugh,” and boy, was she right. Ruth Coker Burks’ memoir is a time-traveling machine, hauling its audience back into the 1980’s when the AIDS crisis was still known as GRID – Gay Related Immune Deficiency. Burk offers a new perspective as she was the main caretaker for the men whose families had given up on them. Not to mention, she was also a single mom with a young daughter. Ruth found herself in a position where she was one of the only allies for the gay community during a time of crisis, and she knew it was her calling as soon as she watched her first patient die.
Although she had no formal medical training, All the Young Men follows Burks into hospitals where she acts as the parent, friend, and partner that many gay men needed. She remembers the parents of young men she called, refusing to be by their child’s deathbed because of their sexuality. She recalls burying dozens of friends and acquaintances on her own property, turning her plot of land into a graveyard for the men who were shunned by their religion, their society and even worse, their own families.
I was hesitant going into this memoir, worried it would be another story of an ally (someone who doesn’t fall under the LGBTQ+ umbrella) who saved the day – this trope is ubiquitous, exhausting, and unhelpful. However, this book does the exact opposite. Burks shows the importance of allyship and what true, real support looks like. Allyship looks like having difficult conversations with people you love, reaching out for help when it’s needed, and taking time to understand the systemic issues that inhibit people from getting the care, support, and love they need to flourish.
The highlight of this book is Burk’s best friend, Billy, a no-nonsense drag queen (before it was cool!) and the true star of the show. Ruth & Billy’s friendship is pure gold, and reading their story unfold is nothing short of beautiful.
This book is exactly what I needed – a historical memoir that sets the stage for just how far LGBTQ+ rights have come, and just how much is still needing to be done. It tells its audience the true power of change, love, and fighting for those who cannot.
Laura Noble is an English teacher at Leo Hayes High School. She is an avid reader of true crime, feminist literature, and realistic fiction.