Syllabus: History of AIDS

This syllabus is part of the LGBTQ Religious Archives Network's
Teaching Resources for BiPOC Religion and AIDS Activism.

History of HIV/AIDS in the United States

This course focuses on the height of AIDS from 1981-1996 in the United States.
Adopting the chronology from Richard McKay’s work Patient Zero and the Making of the
AIDS Epidemic, the course subverts popular narratives around AIDS and AIDS activism.
Those narratives typically center on white gay men in New York and San Francisco as if
they were the sole activists and persons with AIDS (PWAs) during the crisis. This course
balances the account by including recent scholarship on the role of the Black Church in
fighting AIDS.

The course begins with the links between AIDS and carcerality and its many
manifestations, focusing on themes of resistance, knowledge and identity formation and to
examine the contours of both the virus’ spread and how people/communities responded to
the epidemic.

The course demonstrates that AIDS was not solely a disease of white gay upper-class
cisgender men in major urban centers, but even in the early years of the epidemic, it was a
disease that quickly and disproportionately affected imagined “Others” within US society.

The course also reveals histories of persons and movements creatively and substantively
responding to these multi-dimensional issues of incarceration, capitalism, racism, etc. With
the hope of complicating our perceptions of movements and responses to HIV/AIDS, the
course emphasizes the importance of critical examination of primary sources. Each week,
we will engage with a wide-array of primary sources to situate ourselves temporally and
spatially within that period, in an attempt to avoid presentist analyses. In the next sections,
I will flesh out the tripartite structure of the course.

The first part of the course intends to contextualize the late-century United States,
which means understanding the growth and interconnection of carceral and economic
regimes. The course starts with an analysis of the roots of mass incarceration and the
intensification of austerity measures during the 70s and 80s. In the first part, we will
engage with the early responses to the AIDS epidemic and the beginnings of activism. We
will discuss activism and its expansiveness throughout the public health crisis.

The second portion of the course will more intensely focus on responses to AIDS from
both a grassroots/organizational perspective, but also responses from prominent
institutions like the American Catholic Church, the US federal government, state
legislatures, etc. We will see how responses are shaped by the regimes discussed in the
previous section. Activism manifested differently in varying locales. The class hopes to
destabilize the well-promulgated “San Francisco-New York” axis of mobilization. Even
though we will focus some time on the well-known organization like ACT UP (AIDS
Coalition to Unleash Power), we shall look beyond this influential organization, such as
efforts of the Balm in Gilead, Fags Organizing to Resist Militarism in Central America --
Fight Against AIDS Group (FORMICA FAG), and numerous others.

The third section will highlight the cultural production created and curated during
this period. As a form of activism, at times, a secondary focus in scholarship, this course
highlights these ideological struggles as critical to understanding the full impact of AIDS.
This course, in part, argues for a centering of cultural work as in conversation and as
significant as direct action and organizational efforts.


College Course Syllabus