AIDS and AIDS Activism in the 1980s United States: A Syllabus

AIDS and AIDS Activism in the 1980s United States: A Syllabus

An explanation: For years, I have wanted to teach Sarah Schulman’s People in Trouble in my Introduction to LGBTQ Studies course. This is a general education course (we call it “essential learning”) that Colorado Mesa University (CMU) students can choose in order to fulfill their Social and Behavioral Sciences requirement.

Although I am trained as a historian, the course also covers politics, literature and the arts, media, and other topics. I generally use the excellent textbook written by Deborah T. Meem, Michelle A. Gibson, and Jonathan F. Alexander entitled Finding Out: An Introduction to LGBTQ Studies, now it its third edition.

Book cover for People in Trouble. Is a collage of a cityscape with book title written in magazine cut-out looking letters.
People in Trouble by Sarah Schulman. (Amazon)

Although People in Trouble could fit into the history, politics, or literature units in this course, I have wanted to teach it as a primary source in the history unit. I explained why in “The Queer Truth: Sarah Schulman’s People in Trouble.”

I reread the novel in May 2019 and then created a brief unit syllabus geared toward the student body at CMU. CMU has an 82.7% acceptance rate for incoming students, which means that while the students in this class are bright and engaged, not all of them have well-developed reading and writing skills. I often assign difficult reading but do so with a lot of guidance so that students remain open to the challenge. Some of the students may comment that reading an entire novel in a two-week period in addition to other reading is too much. I will do the best I can to encourage them. As you will see below, I have included a few chapters in the required readings for each day in the hopes that breaking it up that way will help them complete their reading.

As is true for any survey course, deciding what to include and what to exclude is intimidating. I can rarely cover things in as much depth as I would like, but in the last few years I have dedicated four of the sixteen weeks to history. The first half of this four-week unit is a large-scale overview of same-sex desire and sexuality in the past, focused largely but not exclusively on North America. The last few times I have taught it, I have spent the next two weeks focused on the 1980s-1990s AIDS epidemic in the United States as a case study. I have found that this case-study approach humanizes history for them. It becomes less abstract, less long-ago, and more relatable. Because the activist response to the AIDS epidemic helped shape current activist movements students might know more about, this also allows them to see both continuity and change.

A Brief Unit Syllabus: AIDS and AIDS Activism in the 1980s United States

Instructions for the students: We will be discussing People in Trouble on the last day of this unit, but please set reading time aside each day in order to complete the reading on time. Keep a list of any terms or events that are unfamiliar to you so that we can talk about them in class.

Week one


Required reading: Chapter 4 in Finding Out, “Stonewall and Beyond;” People in Trouble, pp. 1-37.

In class: Lecture/discussion: What is AIDS? How did Americans respond?


Required reading: Sarah Swedberg, “Silence and Noise: What AIDS Activism and Social Memory Can Teach Us”; People in Trouble, pp. 38-75.

In class: Excerpt from the film, How to Survive a Plague; discussion about the film.


Required reading: People in Trouble, pp. 76-114.

Assignment: Choose one of the transcribed oral history interviews to read from the ACT UP Oral History Project. Each one of these interviews is a snapshot of one of the people who was involved with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). As you read, take note of terms or events that are unfamiliar to you. We will talk about these in class. Turn this list in with a paragraph or two in response to what you read. What brought this person into ACT UP? How does the interview give you a sense of AIDS and AIDS activism in 1980s New York?

In class, group activity: If you were to go about convincing others to get involved and/or convincing the government to pay attention to the AIDS epidemic, how would you go about it? Think about logistics: this was all happening in the days of landlines and before widespread internet use. Be creative! Make sure to discuss multiple possibilities.

Week two


Required reading: Chris McCormack, “Love AIDS Riots,” Art Monthly 423 (February 2019): 6-10; Cleve Jones, “Prologue,” in Charles E. Morris, III, ed., Remembering the AIDS Quilt (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2011); People in Trouble, pp. 114-154.

In class, group activity: Our reading for today focused on artistic responses to the AIDS crisis. In groups, discuss potential artistic responses to AIDS. I have provided you with paper and markers. Use these to create an artistic response. Don’t worry about whether you are artistic or not. Stick figures are fine.


Required reading: Dan Royles, “Love and Rage”; People in Trouble, pp. 154-191.

Assignment: Read at least five of the Bay Area Reporter obituaries at the GLBT Historical Society online searchable database. Limit your search to 1985-1990. In a paragraph or two, write about your reactions to these obituaries. How do they provide a snapshot of the times? How did people respond in obituaries to the death sentence that was AIDS?

In class: Guest speakers who will talk about their experiences with personal or community responses to the 1980s/1990s AIDS epidemic.


Required reading: People in Trouble, pp. 191-end.

In class, discussion: How is People in Trouble a snapshot of a particular time and place? After all we have read and talked about this week, what do you think of the actions of Justice? How was the fictional account Sarah Schulman provided different from or similar to others that we have read or talked about? Let’s go back to the group activity we did last Friday and revisit it: If you were to go about convincing others to pay attention to the AIDS epidemic, how would you go about it?

Sarah Swedberg is a Professor of History at Colorado Mesa University and a lifelong activist.

4 thoughts on “AIDS and AIDS Activism in the 1980s United States: A Syllabus

    • Author gravatar

      This is a timely post for me to read. I was in college in the late 80s, coming into my voice as an adult in the midst of AIDS activism. And this week, when a participant in another listserv I am on (for the Health Humanities Consortium) asked for recommendations of readings for a course about health disparities, I suggested Danez Smith’s very beautiful book of poetry DON’T CALL US DEAD. Smith is young, black, and HIV-positive, and this recent volume connects what it is like to be young, black, and HIV-positive/living with AIDS to the larger vulnerability of African American men within the racist violence of America. It is a stark reminder that the HIV/AIDS epidemic is still very much with us, particularly in communities of color. So while I laud the focus on the 1980s as a microcosm for activism evolving in response to both disease and to discriminatory practices within the healthcare/research systems, I wonder how we can keep students, and everyone, aware that the story of HIV/AIDS devastating lives and communities is not merely one we can put in the past tense. It is still very much with us.

      Lois Leveen
      Humanities for Health

      • Author gravatar

        Yes! I wish I had room in my schedule to teach an interdisciplinary, semester-long course on AIDS. I always talk about the continuing epidemic when I do the two-week unit, and have organized World AIDS Day event that reminds people that the crisis is not over. I am ordering a copy of Don’t Call Us Dead. Maybe this year for World AIDS Day, I can incorporate this poetry.

    • Author gravatar

      I want to take your class!

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