Teaching the History of the AIDS Crisis: 40 Years of HIV/AIDS in American Life

Teaching the History of the AIDS Crisis: 40 Years of HIV/AIDS in American Life

Mark Helmsing and Andrew Porter

In 1981, the U.S. Center for Disease Control (now called the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention) published details about a rare lung infection in its weekly report on morbidity and mortality trends in the United States. The details focused on five young, white men in Los Angeles who were healthy and identified as gay men. The report discussed how all five of these men presented the rare lung disease (called Pneumocystis Pneumonia, or PCP) along with other infections that seemed to indicate their immune systems were not functioning. All five men were dead soon after the report was published, sparking what would become known as the AIDS epidemic, part of what was to become a global AIDS pandemic (amfAR, 2020).

            As referenced and used in this article, this portion of the epidemic is often referred to historically as the AIDS crisis, referring to responses to the epidemic in the U.S. beginning with the founding of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in 1981 and continuing through the 1990s and early 2000s (amfAR, 2020). The AIDS crisis has not ended, despite major advances in the treatment and management of HIV/AIDS. However, the scope of this article considers what is historically viewed as the “height” of the AIDS crisis in the U.S. Our choice in framing the history of the AIDS crisis this way is due to the high priority of periodization in U.S. History courses in which units on the 1980s and/or the 1990s are taught as discrete decades. In this sense the history of the AIDS crisis as it unfolded in the 1980s and 1990s is of most relevance for social studies educators despite the important recent history of the crisis from 2000 through the present.

            This article presents a number of primary source texts middle and high school social studies can consider using when teaching the history of the AIDS crisis, particularly in U.S. History courses, but also in courses that relate to sociology, psychology, civics/government, and social problems or social issues. Further, this topic can be a rich topic for shared interdisciplinary inquiry amongst social studies educators, science educators, and language arts educators searching for topics that can be studied and taught across the disciplines. Before exploring the primary sources, we will briefly offer with social studies educators with three rationales for teaching the history of AIDS crisis.

Rationale for HIV/AIDS in the History Curriculum

Four decades later, the current moment in which we are living and teaching is an important time for history and social studies educators to reflect on and consider how they teach the AIDS crisis. We argue social studies educators need to rethink how they frame and teach about the AIDS crisis, isolated less as a current event topic, which is how we, the authors, learned about the epidemic in school, and instead framing and teaching the AIDS crisis as an historical event necessary for understanding the history of American life in the twentieth century.      

            For most veteran teachers in their fifties and sixties, their teaching careers began in the beginning of the AIDS crisis. Most of their teaching career has run parallel to the AIDS crisis unfolding in ‘real time’ and not as ‘history.’ For some mid-career teachers, those in thirties and forties, their teaching career began during the shift of the AIDS epidemic from a full-blown public health crisis to a more controlled public health risk. These educators grew up in the 1980s and 1990s as children and adolescents whose experiences were shaped by some of the strongest and most combative public responses to the AIDS crisis. For the newest ranks of our profession, many novice teachers completing teacher preparation programs are in their early to mid-twenties, having been born in the mid to late 1990s, such as 1997, the year in which AIDS deaths in the U.S. declined by 42% once anti-HIV therapies known as HIV drug “cocktails” became widely used and demonstrably effective (amfAR, 2020). These newly emerging teachers did not live in a time when an HIV diagnosis was seen as a ‘death sentence’ and accompanied by fear, shame, and discrimination as was prevalent for many people in the U.S. in the 1980s and 1990s. As a result, early career educators, mid-career educators, and late career educators each have distinct orientations to the AIDS crisis and must learn from each other collectively towards creating usable social studies curriculum on HIV/AIDS. To make the case for why this is necessary, we provide three compelling rationales.

            A different time. First, the AIDS crisis is no longer as dominant in the public sphere’s attention as it once was. In the mid-to-late 1980s and all through the 1990s, the AIDS crisis “was impossible to overlook” as HIV/AIDS awareness permeated most “shared spaces, from policy to popular culture” throughout public schools, public health, and everyday life (Finkelstein, 2018, p. 1). Today there are few if any special programs aimed at discussing HIV/AIDS like the ones I grew up watching on the portable television set in my elementary and junior high schools, such as the made-for-television specials In The Shadow of Love: A Teen AIDS Story (González, 1991), or The Ryan White Story (Herzfeld, 1989), about teenager Ryan White, who died from complications of AIDS in 1990 after captivating national attention for his mistreatment by his hometown and high school in Indiana. There are few storylines in film, television, and popular literature that spotlight HIV/AIDS as singular and central issues in our present moment compared to films such as Longtime Companion (René, 1989) and Philadelphia (Demme, 1993). This is due in part to how the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. began to shift from a crisis that was difficult to manage and contain to a disease that scientists and medical experts began to better understand and better treat.

            The past is present. The presence of the AIDS crisis in our cultural memory leads to a second reason social studies educators should consider teaching about the history of AIDS. Whereas there are a few examples of HIV/AIDS featuring in a storyline in contemporary popular culture, there abounds in recent years numerous examples of popular culture that foreground the history and memory of HIV/AIDS. Examples of this history-in-use range from films such as The Normal Heart, based upon Larry Kramer’s 1985 play of the same name (Murphy, 2014) and the Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague (France, 2012) to young adult literature, such as the massively popular novels Like a Love Story (Nzemian, 2019), which features young people living with AIDS in New York City in the 1980s, and We are Lost and Found (Dunbar, 2019), which also spotlights youth living in New York City on the eve of the AIDS crisis. These and other books and films offer contemporary audiences an opportunity to contemplate how HIV/AIDS have been understood and experienced throughout U.S. history.

            The 1980s are history. A third reason relates to U.S. history as an academic subject in schools. As each year passes by, the chronology of recorded history expands and the academic subject of history races to keep up, expanding its scope annually. Despite this expansion of what becomes historical, there is still deep immobility on the timeline of history taught in U.S. History courses. By this we mean how time somewhat stops in U.S. History courses with units and lessons on the long Civil Rights Era of the 1960s and 1970s, the conflict in Vietnam, and some scant coverage of the nation’s history as the 1970s morphs into the 1980s. For us, the authors, this is as far as our U.S. History courses covered when we were students in the 1990s, and, as teachers in the 2000s and 2010, our own courses we taught stopped at this point in the timeline. Yet within the past decade, the 1980s and the 1990s are increasingly becoming properly historical in the sense that many history curriculum standards and textbooks include content from these decades. In a study we conducted of U.S. History curriculum standards and textbooks, we found conclusive evidence that the 1980s are historically significant enough to receive dedicated instruction within U.S. History contexts. Indeed, released exams from the Advanced Placement U.S. History course over the past few years show questions that require student knowledge of the 1980s within the context of U.S. history. If the 1980s and 1990s continue to be increasingly taught as history instead of recent events in social studies courses, then teachers and students should develop content knowledge on the AIDS crisis and how the crisis and the broader epidemic changed American life during this time.

Historical Inquiry into the AIDS Crisis

Through using digitized primary source texts to investigate responses to the AIDS epidemic, students can examine different facets of public and private life in the United States. Below we organize a sampling of various digitized primary sources into four different thematic foci: (1) newspapers and magazines; (2) digital memories of public memorials; (3) public service announcements; and (4) opinions and editorials. These are only four of many different possible ways teachers can help students engage in inquiry to interpret the historical significance of the AIDS crisis.

Newspapers and magazines. First, students can analyze primary source material, including newspaper articles and magazine covers, to understand the widespread uncertainty and confusion surrounding HIV/AIDS in the early 1980s. The picture that emerges from primary source material is one of a wary nation trying to understand the science and epidemiology of HIV/AIDS and how it was transmitted to individuals. The first major news article to reference AIDS (although not directly by name) was printed in the New York Times on July 3rd 1981 (Blakemore, 2017). The article was titled: “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals” (Altman, 1981). A year later on July 18th in 1982, the New York Times published a story titled: “Clue Found on Homosexual’s Precancer Syndrome” (Altman, 1982). Teachers can elicit students’ historical thinking through methods of comparison between the framing used in these headlines from the early 1980s and what was later learned as new and better information was shared with the public. For example, HIV and AIDS are not a form of “cancer,” but in the absence of more accurate scientific knowledge in the early 1980s, this is how the viral infections we now know as HIV and AIDS was first described. Students can see how the immediate framing of this scientific discovery foregrounded LGBTQ communities by using the then-acceptable term “homosexuals” as a designated group, a term and framing no longer acceptably used by medical communities in the present. Similarly, students can analyze the visual imagery of a TIME Magazine cover from July 4th 1983 that presents cover stories such as: “Disease Detectives,” “Tracking the Killers,” and “The AIDS Hysteria” (Pierce, 1983). Reading an article from an Indiana newspaper, the Kokomo Tribune published on August 31, 1985 titled “School bars door to youth with AIDS” (MacNeil, 1985) helps students understand how Ryan White was officially banned from attending public school as a result of contracting HIV/AIDS through a blood transfusion.

Digital memories of public memorials. Using digital video source material, students can examine news broadcasts chronicling the first unveiling of the AIDS Memorial Quilt on the National Mall on October 11, 1987 and listen to emotional interviews where survivors memorialize lost loved ones. Teachers can encourage students to critically analyze the video in order to investigate the importance of the AIDS Memorial Quilt and the significance of the Quilt being displayed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. for the first time. The NAMES Project Foundation’s website affords students the opportunity to view the entire AIDS Memorial Quilt. While on the website, students can “search the quilt” in order to view images of specific panels that memorialize individuals who died from HIV/AIDS. Each three-foot by three-foot panel in the quilt is different, and tells a distinctive story about a unique individual who died from HIV/AIDS.

Public service announcements. One thematic focus of students’ historical inquiry can examine how public perceptions of and responses to HIV/AIDS evolved throughout the 1980s. A New York Times article published on July 24, 1987 titled “Reagan Names 12 to Panel on AIDS” (Boffey, 1987), and the TIME magazine cover story for February 16th 1987 which reads “The Big Chill, How Heterosexuals are Coping with AIDS” (Brosan, 1987), illustrate a growing public realization that AIDS was becoming a legitimate health crisis that demanded attention. Students can compare and contrast these two sources with source material from the early 1980s to investigate why and the public perception of HIV/AIDS had changed and why it was increasingly impacting the country as a whole. Students can also analyze public service announcement (PSA) posters such as one created by Jack Keeler in 1987 that depicts a crayon drawing of a frowning child with outstretched arms, stating “I have AIDS please hug me, I can’t make you sick” (Keeler, 1987). Through examining the origins and purpose of the PSA, students can recognize how discrimination beginning in the 1980s (and continuing through the present) often robbed people living with HIV and AIDS of their dignity and humanity. The U.S. National Library of Medicine hosts a digital gallery online titled “Surviving & Thriving: AIDS, Politics, and Culture” that has digitized 42 PSAs surveying a wide array of health and social issues related to the epidemic.

Opinions and editorials. Finally, a fourth theme for historical inquiry can explicate how political and social beliefs contributed to a negative stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS during the 1980s, helping students establish historical causation on the rise of legal discrimination towards people living with HIV and AIDS. Political cartoons from influential newspaper cartoonist Daniel Sotomayor (who died from AIDS-related complications in 1992) illustrate the growing frustration to the U.S. federal government’s slow response in addressing the AIDS epidemic (Sotomayor, 1989). In the cartoon, a turtle labeled “Too little Too Late” (symbolizing the U.S. government’s inadequate response to the AIDS epidemic) is slowly climbing a mountain of caskets. Teachers can have students examine the cartoon in order to determine the authors perspective, the overall message of the cartoon and any elements of symbolism. In order to understand how the HIV/AIDS epidemic became a controversial social and political issue, students can read The Moral Majority Report from July, 1983 which cover story is titled: “Homosexual Diseases Threaten American Families.” Furthermore, students can watch Rev. Jerry Falwell (leader of the Moral Majority group) debate “The Morality of AIDS” with reverend Troy Perry (a leader in the fight against AIDS) on a live television broadcast from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1983.  Through the tense exchanges in the debate, students can see that Rev. Falwell and those aligned with the “Moral Majority” generally lacked empathy for AIDS victims, considered AIDS to be gods judgment against the sin of “homosexual promiscuity” and believed that the cure for HIV/AIDS was traditional family values. Conversely, in the video Rev. Perry argues for an end to the politicization of HIV/AIDS in order to provide compassionate support the victims and stem the loss of life.

Conclusion: Lessons for a new health crisis.

When the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the United States in the spring of 2020, many wanted to make comparisons between the COVID-19 public health crisis and the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s. To be sure, there are some areas of comparison, especially in terms of shifting knowledge and public awareness to both outbreaks as well as missteps in governmental responses to both (in addition to the leading roles both Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx have played in both). And yet there are numerous distinctions that are important to point out, such as the fact that “financial collapse, massive unemployment, and daily White House briefings” did not take place during the AIDS crisis, nor did a race to find a vaccine take off in the first year of the disease’s discovery (Page, 2020, n.p.). One of the main history lessons students can take away from studying the history of the AIDS crisis is that tireless activism and civic protest, along with hundreds of thousands of deaths in the U.S., all took place before a light began to appear in the AIDS crisis. We hope this sample of primary source resources will enable social studies educators to consider with their students “the multiple and contested discourses around HIV/AIDS circulating in news coverage, public policy statements, health initiatives” and other sources of public life that can enrich learning about HIV/AIDS (Lesko, Brotman, Agwal, & Quackenbush, 2010, p. 826). This work is what Finkelstein (2018) terms “AIDS 2.0,” the work ahead of “a new generation of historians, archivists, artists, and activists, who were born in the midst of HIV/AIDS and are struggling to make sense of the worlds they both inherited and missed” (p. 1). We hope social studies educators will be a part of this work as well.


Altman, L. K. (1981, July 3). Rare cancer seen in 41 homosexuals. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/1981/07/03/us/rare-cancer-seen-in-41-homosexuals.html

Altman, L. K. (1982, June 18). Clue found on homosexuals’ pre-cancer syndrome. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/1982/06/18/us/clue-found-on-homosexuals-precancer-syndrome.html

amfAR. (The Foundation for AIDS Research). (2020). HIV/AIDS: Snapshots of an epidemic. https://www.amfar.org/thirty-years-of-hiv/aids-snapshots-of-an-epidemic/

Blakemore, E. (2017, July 3). This was the first major news article on HIV/AIDS. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/was-first-major-news-article-hivaids-180963913/

Boffey, P. M. (1987, July 24). Reagan names 12 to panel on AIDS. The New York Times. http://movies2.nytimes.com/library/national/science/aids/072487sci-aids.html

Brosan, R. (1987, July 24). Cover image. TIME, 129(7). http://content.time.com/time/magazine/0,9263,7601870216,00.html

Butler, P. (2004). Embracing AIDS: History, identity, and post-AIDS discourse. JAC, 24(1), 93-111.

Demme, J. (Director). (1993). Philadelphia [film]. TriStar Pictures.

Dunbar, H. (2019). We are lost and found. Sourcebooks.

Finkelstein, A. (2018). After silence: A history of AIDS through its images. University of California Press.

France, D. (Director). (2012). How to survive a plague [film]. IFC.

González, C. (Director). (1991). In the shadow of love: A teen AIDS story [made-for-television film]. ABC.

Herzfeld, J. (Director). (1989). The Ryan White story [made-for-television film]. ABC.

Keeler, J. (1987). I have AIDS, please hug me. [Still image]. U.S. National Library of Medicine, Digital Collections. https://collections.nlm.nih.gov/catalog/nlm:nlmuid-101451779-img

Lesko, N., Brotman, J. S., Agrwal, R., & Quackenbush, J. L. (2010). Feeling jumpy: Teaching about HIV/AIDS. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 23(7), 823-843.

MacNeil, C. M. (1985, August 31). School bars door to youth with AIDS. Kokomo Tribune. https://www.hemophiliafed.org/news-stories/2014/03/1985-ryan-white-banned-from-school-because-of-aids/

Murphy, R. (Director). (2014). The normal heart [made-for-television film]. HBO.

Nazemian, A. (2019). Like a love story. Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins Publishers.

Page, A. (2020, May 12). I’m an AIDS survivor and COVID-19 is giving me flashbacks. HuffPost. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/aids-epidemic-covid-19-pandemic_n_5eb441ccc5b6b92917060e77

Pierce, B. (1983, July 4). Cover image. TIME, 122(1). http://content.time.com/time/magazine/0,9263,7601830704,00.html

René, N. (Director). (1989). Longtime companion [film]. Samuel Goldwyn Company.

Shahani, N. (2016). How to survive the whitewashing of AIDS: Global pasts, transnational futures. QED, 3(1), 1-33.

Sotomayor, D. (1989). America responds to AIDS [Illustrated cartoon]. http://www.windycitymediagroup.com/images/publications/wct/2011-04-13/Sotomayor1989_AmericNumber70085.jpg

The Journal. (1983, July 6). Jerry Falwell and Troy Perry debate morality of AIDS. [Video]. https://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/ministers-debate-aids-and-the-politics-of-plague

U.S. National Library of Medicine. (n.d.). Surviving & thriving: AIDS, politics, and culture [Digital gallery]. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/survivingandthriving/digitalgallery/america-responds-to-AIDS.html

Walker, L. (2017). Problematising the discourse of ‘post-AIDS.’ (2020). Journal of Medical Humanities, 41, 95-105.

YesterGayTV. (2013, June 24). First unveiling AIDS Quilt 1987. . YouTube. https://youtu.be/lrVzjJ2e4hU

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s