The AIDS Crisis, 1981-1993

Created By

Ben Leff, Teaching Associate, University Laboratory High School (Urbana, Illinois)

  • Conservative Resurgence and Social Change, 1964-2000: Conservative Social Trends
  • Conservative Resurgence and Social Change, 1964-2000: Counterculture and Social Activism

Introduction & Context

In the early 1980s, a new disease ravaged the United States and the world, unleashing numerous social challenges and controversies. The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a bloodborne pathogen that spreads in various ways, including sexual activity and sharing of needles for intravenous drug use. The virus wreaks havoc on a person’s immune system, leading to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), a condition that can leave patients without defense against disease. Before any treatments were developed, an AIDS diagnosis was a virtual death sentence, and the disease devastated the communities it struck.

Initial outbreaks in the United States centered in communities of gay men, where HIV had spread through sexual contact. However, by the decade’s end, AIDS cases could be found throughout American society, especially among poor black and brown communities. Because the disease was so new and its victims were drawn disproportionately from already stigmatized groups, people with AIDS were subject to discrimination and prejudice. Government agencies researched the disease, launched education campaigns, and worked with pharmaceutical companies to develop treatments. Still, many people with AIDS (PWA) criticized what they saw as an insufficient government response and organized to bring political pressure. In turn, AIDS activism often sparked a backlash, particularly from the Religious Right. Thus, the AIDS crisis was both a human tragedy and a flashpoint of controversy over the healthcare system, discrimination, sexuality, race and class disparities, intravenous drug use, and the responsibility of the government to help its citizens.

Read More +

Teaching Tips Download PDF

These sources – drawn from documentaries, panel shows, and The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour reports that aired between 1983-1993 – illuminate numerous themes that can be productively explored in the classroom. First, they illustrate the struggles endured by people with AIDS: the physical toll of the disease, also the pain of losing loved ones, the devastating cost of medical treatments, the harms of discrimination, and the indignity of public shaming. Second, the collection traces the contours of the controversies that roiled American society as a result of the AIDS epidemic and the questions that it prompted: Was the government spending enough on research? Were drug companies being exploitative? Should medical trials give placebos to participants? Should schools teach about condoms? Should drug addicts be given clean needles? Were confrontational AIDS activists justified in causing disruption to call public attention to the disease? The sources in this discussion set allow students to explore these issues and relate them to broader ideological debates in American society.

Background Information

Before engaging with this resource set, students should be familiar with the following:

  • Some general historical background about the AIDS crisis, including a broad understanding of how the disease spread and the communities it disproportionately affected
  • Some familiarity with the rise of conservatism and the political success of Republican Ronald Reagan
  • Some general understanding of the social and political concerns of evangelical conservatives (i.e. the “Religious Right”) regarding sex and sexuality
  • Some historical background on the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the Gay Liberation Movement, and growing visibility of LGBTQ+ people

Essential Question

What social and political challenges and debates emerged as Americans grappled with the AIDS crisis?

General Discussion Questions

  • What were some of the challenges faced by people with AIDS?
  • One might think that victims of a novel, deadly disease would receive widespread public sympathy. While many Americans did express compassion for people with AIDS, a large number of Americans treated AIDS patients with fear, prejudice, and even condemnation. Why did people with AIDS sometimes receive this less sympathetic treatment?
  • What political fights and controversies emerged regarding how to properly respond to the AIDS crisis? How can we relate these political debates to broader political conflicts of the era?
  • What were the goals and tactics of activists who fought for a more robust, effective, and humane response to the AIDS epidemic? What were some controversies associated with this activism?

Classroom Activities

1) Clip discussion

You might only have time for a brief treatment of the AIDS crisis in a survey course. If so, you could identify one or two clips from this set to show your class and follow with some discussion questions. For example:

Show “Screaming, Yelling, Making a Fuss”: ACT UP Grabs America’s Attention (1990) and ask students to identify the organization’s goals and strategies. Students could also discuss whether they think the confrontational tactics would have been effective in achieving the group’s goals.

Show The AIDS Crisis and the Gay Rights Backlash in Houston (1991) and use it as an opportunity to discuss the impact of the AIDS crisis on the Gay Rights Movement. In what ways did the crisis mark a setback for the Gay Rights Movement? But at the same time, how might the AIDS crisis have had a galvanizing effect on gay political mobilization?

For many other clips in this collection, students could analyze the different “sides” of an AIDS-related disagreement and try to relate these conflicts to broader political themes and trends from the period as well as from more recent history.

2) Topic: The AIDS epidemic and the COVID epidemic

After watching some of the clips, you could ask students: What makes the AIDS epidemic similar to the COVID epidemic? What makes the two epidemics different? If students need assistance, you can follow up with questions asking students to compare: the government response; the groups that were most at risk; the nature of fears over the spread of the disease; behaviors that led to risk of infection; political divides over proper response; and the relative deadliness of each disease.

3) Jigsaw teaching

If time constraints limit how many clips each student can watch, you can administer a “jigsaw” activity in which students are assigned to different groups that each watch a different subset of clips. Students from different groups can then teach each other about what they watched. For example:

Split students into five groups and assign specific clips to each group.

Group A: Two clips about the human impact of the AIDS epidemic:
Bobby Reynolds Describes Living With AIDS (1986)
A Gay Men’s Chorus Experiences Loss, Grief, and Anger (1993)

Group B: Two clips about conservative backlash in response to the AIDS epidemic:
Cultural Conservatives Relate AIDS Crisis to “Immoral” Behavior (1983)
The AIDS Crisis and the Gay Rights Backlash in Houston (1991)

Group C: A clip about the activist group, ACT UP:
“Screaming, Yelling, Making a Fuss”: ACT UP Grabs America’s Attention (1990)

Group D: Two clips about debates over experimental treatments:
Surviving but Going Broke: The Affordability of AIDS Treatments (1989)
Balancing Scientific Rigor and Humanitarian Concerns in Medical Trials (1989)

Group E: Two clips focusing on the impact of AIDS in lower-income Black communities:
There Are No “High Risk Groups…Only High Risk Activities” (1988)
Black Community Organizations Tackle the AIDS Crisis (1989)

Each of these “expert groups” watches their assigned clips (in class or for pre-work) and discusses teacher-assigned questions about the clips.

Next, reshuffle the groups such that each new “jigsaw” group has at least one member from each expert group. Students then teach each other about key ideas from their clips.

You could then provide “synthesis questions” for the jigsaw groups to discuss at the end of the activity (e.g. “Do you think the response to the AIDS crisis would have been different if its primary victims were not stigmatized groups like gay men?”). Or students could discuss the COVID comparison questions in the previous activity.

This activity is imagined as part of a single lesson on the AIDS crisis. However, if you are able to devote more time to this topic in your curriculum, these clips could provide a springboard to various extension activities. A few examples:

  • Each expert group could combine AAPB clips with supplemental research to create a “museum exhibit” that the rest of the class could view.
  • You could organize a mock hearing or press conference in which members of each expert group could field questions from other students (playing the role of journalists or congresspeople) about their topic.

Additional Resources

  • How to Survive a Plague, Official Documentary Website
  • The Age of AIDS, Frontline
  • Interactive AIDS Quilt, National AIDS Memorial
  • AIDS Crisis Lesson Materials, Stanford History Education Group
  • Stop the Church: Issues and Outrage, American Archive of Public Broadcasting
  • Citation

    Leff, Ben. "The AIDS Crisis, 1981-1993." WGBH and the Library of Congress.