Teaching Guide: Exploring ACT UP and the AIDS Crisis

This teaching guide helps instructors use a specific primary source set, ACT UP and the AIDS Crisis, in the classroom. It offers discussion questions, classroom activities, and primary source analysis tools. It is intended to spark pedagogical creativity by giving a sample approach to the material. Please feel free to share, reuse, and adapt the resources in this guide for your teaching purposes.

Discussion questions

  1. Considering the news story outlining the history of the gay rights movement and the pamphlet for the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, explain how ACT UP grew out of a longer history of activism in the US and gay rights activism in particular.
  2. Use the transcript of a speech given by Dr. Neil Shram, the open letter to the River Expo Committee, and the article about an interview with Larry Kramer to detail the challenges faced by ACT UP and other AIDS activists of this era.
  3. Use the ACT UP T-shirt, the photograph of protesters against the Helms Amendment, the poster with the slogan “Silence=Death", the poster with the question “How many will be alive for Stonewall 35?," and the poster with the slogan “Dead women can't vote" to characterize ACT UP’s particular methods of campaigning for AIDS awareness. Who were their audiences? What strategies did they use?
  4. Do a close reading of the poster with the slogan “Silence=Death." What is its central message? Explain the analogy it employs. How does Larry Kramer explain the analogy in the article about an interview with Larry Kramer? How does this depiction of the “Silence = Death” slogan compare to that of the ACT UP T-shirt?
  5. Compare the political strategies employed by the NAMES Project, evident in the photograph of crowds examining the national AIDS quilt and the letter from David Lemos, to those employed by ACT UP. What are the pros and cons of each?
  6. What do the article titled “Atlanta’s ACT UP won't die like D.C.’s” and the article about an interview with Larry Kramer tell us about internal political tensions within the ACT UP network?
  7. Consider the poster with the slogan “Dead women can't vote.” What is the political strategy used to express the central message of this poster? Where do the experiences of women appear in the other sources? What does this tell us about gender in AIDS activism of this period?
  8. What can you infer about the ACT UP “golden shaft” award? Who are the recipients of this award? Why are they chosen?

Classroom activities

  1. Divide students into small groups and ask each group to pick a time period in the chronology of events published by ACT UP: 1987-88, 1989, 1990, 1991,1992, or 1993-94. Each group should summarize the major events and concerns of ACT UP during the time period, examining the challenges they faced and the particular strategies they used. Ask students to use evidence from sources in this set. Groups should present summaries of their time periods in order, then collectively discuss the ways in which ACT UP’s public image and central concerns evolved over time.
  2. Many have criticized the gay, white, male focus of AIDS activism in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Ask students to research and write essays about the role of women in both ACT UP and AIDS activism in general. Individual research papers might focus on one of the following topics:
  • the work of ACT UP’s Women’s Caucus
  • the work of lesbian activists during the AIDS Crisis
  • the changing demographics of HIV/AIDS since the mid-1990s and their impact on women’s lives
  • women’s work in contemporary HIV/AIDS activism
    (Alternatively, this research could be about the role of people and communities of color in ACT UP and AIDS activism in general.)

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