Ruth Coker Burks | 'I wanted the [victims] to be counted, to have their lives matter'

Ruth Coker Burks | 'I wanted the [victims] to be counted, to have their lives matter'

"They'd put a big red plastic bag over the entire door, and all his food trays were on the floor outside. And then the nurses started drawing straws to choose who would have to go in there and check on him.” On Zoom, Ruth Coker Burks is reliving the moment in 1984 when, while visiting a friend in hospital in her home town of Hot Springs, Arkansas, she noticed that all the hospital staff were avoiding the young male patient in a nearby room like the plague. “I thought, ‘This isn’t right.’ So I snuck into the room and went to the bedside and took his hand. He was so frail and pale I could not tell him from the sheets.”

At the time, Coker Burks was a young, straight, church-going single mother in her mid-twenties. She knew little of AIDS, beyond the rumours of a disease that a gay cousin in Hawaii had assured her that only the “leather guys in San Francisco” were getting. But she felt called to help.

“I asked the young man if there was anything I could do and he said he wanted his mama. I thought: ‘Well, I can fix that, and then I can go back about my business.’ So I told him: ‘Okay, I’ll go get them to call her.’ I went to the nurses and said: ‘That young man wants his mama.’ And they all backed up against the wall, and said: ‘You didn’t go in that room did you? He’s got that gay disease.’ I said; ‘Yes I did, and he wants his mother.’ And they said: ‘Honey, his mama’s not coming. He’s been here six weeks. Nobody’s coming. And don’t you go in that room again.’”

Eventually Coker Burks persuaded the nurses to give her the telephone number she needed. “I called his mother and I said: ‘Hi, I’m Ruth Coker Burks and I have a young man up here who I believe is your son. He’s dying and he wants to see you.’ She said: ‘I don’t have a son,’ and hung up on me. I knew I had the right person. So I called her back, and I said: ‘If you hang up on me one more time, I will put his obituary in your hometown newspaper and I’ll list his cause of death.’ And then she said: ‘My son died years ago when he went gay, so don’t even call me when he dies.’ Click. So I went back in there, not knowing what on earth I was going to say to this young man. He looked up at me and said: ‘Oh Mama. I knew you’d come.’ I was just paralysed. And so I said: ‘Honey I’m here, and I’m not going to leave you.’ That was how I met Jimmy.”

Coker Burks sat with Jimmy for the 13 hours it took him to die. And then, because no one else would, she arranged a burial for him. That, she thought, was that. But then word got around, the phone started ringing, and before long, she had become an accidental activist; the only person in her deeply conservative community that the growing number of young men afflicted by AIDS could turn to for help. A lifetime of campaigning and advocacy for those with HIV and the LGBT community followed. She later advised the governor, then President Bill Clinton, who was a childhood friend, on the AIDS crisis. “I wanted the [victims] to be counted, to have their lives matter,” she writes.

The full story of how her encounter with Jimmy changed Coker Burks’ life is told in All the Young Men, a memoir written with noted US “book collaborator” Kevin Carr O’Leary, whom she praises for “channelling my men so well. He brought them so much back to life that I could smell their cologne. I wouldn’t have told this story if I hadn’t found Kevin.”

I ask Coker Burks, who is now in her early sixties, why she has decided to tell it now. “I had a stroke in 2010. It was pretty devastating, and they told me I had a 75% chance of having another stroke in the first year. My insurance cancelled on me, so I didn’t have any kind of therapy and had to teach myself to walk and talk and do everything all over again. And I decided I didn’t want to die with this story that no one out there knew about."

When pressed, Coker Burks attributes her stroke to the stress and exhaustion she endured while ministering to, and fighting for, the rights of those with AIDS. “I would go to three funerals a day sometimes. And then I would go on my rounds with the food and medication people needed. It all caught up with me, I think. But I don’t want to blame anything on my men. It was the stress I got from everyone else that gave me the stroke.”

Stress seems a mild word for it. Because of what she was doing, Coker Burks was ostracised by almost everyone in her community, including the elders at her church. Her daughter Allison—two years old when Coker Burks met Jimmy—found it hard to make friends at school because of her mother’s calling, and was never invited to birthday parties. “It was so awful. I wanted the straight Christian life—a husband and a family—but I wasn’t going to get it after I touched an AIDS patient.”

Twice Coker Burks woke in the night to find that the Ku Klux Klan had planted crosses in her front garden and set them aflame, but she wasn’t in the least cowed. “I’d just go out there and put the fire out, and go back about my business, because what did those cowards have to do with anything?” While Coker Burks believes she was called by God to help those on the fringes of society, she stopped going to church in the 1990s. “How can you go to a church where they teach love but don’t practise it? All I did was what anyone should have done. But they didn’t.”

Forging bonds
Among many memorable characters in All the Young Men are the members of a local community of covert drag queens who take Coker Burks to their collective bosoms. “I found such an incredible family in the LGBT community back then,” she tells me. We also meet Paul and Billy, a young couple with whom she forged a particularly beautiful friendship: the book is dedicated to them. While Paul is still alive, Billy, like almost all of the young men she came to love, died before life-saving medication became widely available. Coker Burks’ account of Billy’s final days is one of the most moving things I have read in a long time. But while this modern-day Good Samaritan story, now set to be a Hollywood film, will move you to tears of outrage and sadness, it is also an uplifting tale of saintly but sassy human empathy that we could all do with reading right now.

Coker Burks is also a joy to interview. At one point she holds up her little terrier, a dead ringer for Toto, which, true to form, she rescued from peril. “I found him on a five-lane highway, about to get run over. So I talked to the lady that owned him and discovered that he kept getting out on the road because they couldn’t afford to fix their fence. She said to me: ‘I’d rather you had him because I’ve had four dogs run over this past year.’ And I’m like: ‘Isn’t that God’s way of telling you that you shouldn’t have dogs?’”

Book Extract 
The calls would come either late night or early morning. I’d grown used to hospitals calling me, but these men were on their own. I don’t know how they got my number, but they were told I was someone who might help.

Most of them knew what was coming but didn’t know what to do. They’d been living with a boyfriend who died or just taking care of a friend. Sometimes I would say hello, and all they could do was sob.

“I’m here,” I’d say. And I’d listen to them cry for an hour because they couldn’t get it out or they didn’t know how. “It’s okay, just go ahead and cry. And if you can talk then you can talk. And if you can’t, well you know; you let me know when you want to hang up because I won’t.”