Sample Course Guide on HIV/AIDS Justice

The following post is meant to a practical way to discuss the HIV/AIDS crisis in an academic setting, while focusing on using knowledge about HIV/AIDS history, arts and culture to generate new activist potentials.

Action Appendix #1

Sample Lesson Plan For Course on HIV/AIDS Justice

Given the misinformation, or lack of information, being taught about HIV/AIDS, one of the biggest tangible steps to build justice for people living with HIV and for stronger sexual health programs in general is to educate individuals about the complexities of HIV/AIDS and its effects on LGBTQ individuals. I have tried to build in levels of complexity that can be adapted for different audiences. Any of these individual sessions can also be adapted for single classes or workshops in a variety of ways. Importantly, a major component of this syllabus is based in practical design, whether for a research project, community action, or intervention.

(Given the sensitive or challenging nature of the materials, this is suggested for individuals over the age of 18, though certain sources can be adapted for even younger audiences who we know are also at risk for contracting HIV.)

Week 1: Introduction, Film and Discussion

In a 3 hour seminar format, I would propose:

  • A short introduction of the course materials/expectations (15 minutes)
  • Allow time for an introductory activity (30 minutes)
  • Screen Gregg Bordowitz’s film Long Trip, Fast Drop (1988). This film offers an insight into the culture surrounding AIDS in the late 1980s, and covers signs, symbols and signifiers of the AIDS crisis, using an inventive video style to show how to survive in that difficult moment (55 minutes)
  • Short break (5 minutes)
  • Partner exercise: What were some of the images or themes you noticed being introduced in the film? Did you relate to any of specific topics being addressed in the film? How do you feel the way we talk about HIV or represent it through media has changed? (25 minutes)
  • Group discussion on the themes of the film (45 minutes)
  • Closing, reframing for next week (15 minutes)

Possible readings for the upcoming week:

  • Ch. 8 “Mobilizations and Memorials” from Not Straight, Not White by Kevin J. Mumford
  • Ch. 1 “AIDS, Homophobia, and Biomedical Discourse” from How To Have Theory in an Epidemic by Paula A. Trechler
  • Selection from How To Survive A Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS by David France
  • Ch. 13 “Patient Zero” from And The Band Played On by Randy Shilts
  • Article: “Why did it take so long for science to debunk the Aids ‘Patient Zero’? by Steven Thrasher, The Guardian (Nov. 1 2016)
  • Watch (8 minutes): “Reagan Administration’s Chilling Response to the AIDS Crisis” (Vanity Fair, December 1 2015)
  • Introduction “Making Record From Memory” from The Gentrification of the Mind by Sarah Schulman

Assignment: Bring one fact or new bit of information to the next meeting that surprised you most. Write about why it’s surprising and why you think it’s worth exploring in more detail.

Additional readings:

  • “AIDS and Its Metaphors” from Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors by Susan Sontag
  • Part 1 “Understanding the Past” from The Gentrification of the Mind by Sarah Schulman
  • For a more literary focus, I’d suggest Times Square Red, Times Square Blue by Samuel Delany
  • For beginning undergraduates, A History of Sexuality: Volume 1 by Michel Foucault is an essential resource to add to the list at some point.


Week 2: What is “AIDS”? Framing A Body

HIV, as one soon realizes, is more than just a virus. It becomes a weapon that people use against those who are sick, whether through medical discourse or public policy. It’s also a rallying cry for marginalized communities and a strategy conservative politicians exploited to “clean up” cities.

  • Framing discussion (15 minutes)
    • Talk about the need to approach historicizing HIV in a new way, suggesting that it is impossible to know fully what happened, but instead, we must recognize how our understanding of the crisis has changed, even in recent years through new discoveries. Also talk about marginalized communities and how they’ve been excluded in clear ways from history.
  • Guided Discussion Around Key Topics: Possible questions to ask are, “In what ways has gentrification or redevelopment of queer spaces threatened or destroyed HIV/AIDS histories in the process?” “In what ways has scientific discourse contributed to shame/fear surrounding HIV?” “We know that poor people and racial minorities are disproportionately affected by HIV. What does it mean for HIV/AIDS activist movements that these stories are only being told now?” (75 minutes)
  • Short Break (5 minutes)
  • Continued Guided Discussion (60 minutes)
  • Group exercise: Everyone should share a particular moment that they remember learning something stigmatizing, untrue or offensive about HIV. Then, have a discussion on the ways in which you learned something that challenged those assumptions. Come back as a group with one strategy or concrete action you can personally enact to challenge misinformation or negative stereotypes about HIV. (25 minutes)

Possible readings for the upcoming week:

  • Ch. 1, Ch. 3, Ch. 5 from Structural Intimacies: Sexual Stories in the Black AIDS Epidemic by Sonja Mackenzie
  • Introduction, Ch. 3 “Michel Foucault” from The Work of Mourning by Jacques Derrida
  • Cytomegalovirus: A Hospitalization Diary by Hervé Guibert
  • Article: “Ruth Coker Burks: The Cemetery Angel” by David Koon, The Arkansas Times (January 8, 2015)
  • Selections from Women, AIDS and Activism by ACT UP NY/Women AIDS Book Group
  • Introduction, Ch. 4, Ch. 5 from Hold Tight Gently: Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill and the Battlefield of AIDS by Martin Duberman
  • Jamie Manrique in the ACT Oral History Archive on Reinaldo Arenas:


Week 3: Bodies on the Frontlines

People were affected and continue to be affected by HIV/AIDS. It’s important to learn about the ways in which HIV is not a uniform experience, even if certain universal themes (i.e. stigmatization, lack of access to treatment or discrimination in the medical field) factor into many of these stories.

  • Introduction to film (5 minutes)
  • Show We’re Still Here documentary (2016)– This film documents the lives of first generation children born with HIV in the 1980s and 1990s, one of the groups that have largely been forgotten. (60 minutes)
  • Writing exercise: A free write on thoughts about the film and the relationship to the readings that were assigned last week. The idea here is to start connecting how different communities are affected intimately and personally. (15 minutes)
  • Short break (10 minutes)
  • Guided Discussion: Ask people to start sharing their thoughts about the film and the other readings. Try to get them to analyze the ways the systems and signs of the previous lesson have intimate effects on individuals and communities. Presume that students come into the class without direct experience with HIV personally. (90 minutes)

Possible readings for the upcoming week:

  • Introduction, Ch. 6 “A New State Centered Strategy” from Urban Action Networks: HIV/AIDS and Community Organizing in New York City by Howard Lune
  • Introduction, Ch. 2, Ch. 3, and Ch. 6 from Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP’s Fight Against AIDS by Deborah Gould
  • Ch. 5 “Turn Anger, Fear, Grief into Action,” Ch. 6 “It Saved My Life” from Mobilizing New York: AIDS, Antipoverty and Feminist Activism
  • Ch. 7 “The Critique of Pure Science” from Impure Science: AIDS, Activism and the Politics of Knowledge by Steven Epstein
  • Ch. 3 “AIDS and Transformation” from Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation by Urvashi Vaid

Assignment: Create your own HIV/AIDS activist timeline that includes 10 key moments in the HIV/AIDS movement. This can include specific protests, key meetings, or victories that were achieved based on activism. The idea here is not to create a definite history of HIV/AIDS activism. I’m not looking for any specific events. Instead, I’m trying to see how you can piece together a variety of key actors and organizations in a much larger, sustained movement.

Week 4: Fight Back, Fight AIDS: Activism Against Death

The AIDS protest movement is one of the most successful modern protest movements in American history. ACT UP was the anchor, but a vast network of organizations, many times with different aims, achieved successes in and of their own right. There were many flaws to this movement, which caused it to ultimately fracture, but it also brought together a diverse coalition that sustained activism in the face of death.


  • Introduction to film (5 minutes)
  • Show United In Anger: A History of ACT UP (2012) by Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman (90 minutes)
  • Short break (5 minutes)
  • Guided discussion: After watching the film, do you have any new questions about the ACT UP movement as it relates to the reading? Do you have any critiques of the film as relates to talking about ACT UP? Was anything missing that should be added? All of these questions are meant to encourage a thoughtful discussion on history, both as things happened, how they are interpreted, and the way that history of social movements matters in shaping contemporary ones. (80 minutes)

Possible readings for the upcoming week:

  • Selection from General Idea: Imagevirus by Gregg Bordowitz
  • Introduction, Ch. 2 “The Embodied Immediacy of Direct Action” from Reframing Bodies: AIDS, Bearing Witness and the Queer Moving Image by Roger Hallas
  • Selection from AIDS Demo Graphics by Douglas Crimp
  • Ch. 4, Ch. 5 from Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic and the Politics of Remembering by Marita Sturkin
  • “De-Moralizing Representations of AIDS” and “Painful Pictures” from Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics by Douglas Crimp
  • Interview: Avram Finkelstein with The Center For Artistic Activism (Feb. 2016):
  • Article: “Is Art Enough? Gran Fury In Perspective” by Emily Colucci, Hyperallergic (February 21, 2012)

Assignment: Choose a specific visual image from the HIV/AIDS movement and write 2-3 pages on its significance for you. Be sure to include a little bit of background on the image to demonstrate your understanding of where it fits into the timeline of HIV/AIDS activism.


Week 5: The Visual Protest Language of AIDS Activists

Beyond the political protests of the HIV/AIDS activist movements, there is a specific visual protest language that was created through the use of home movies, protest posters, and large-scale physical exhibitions like the AIDS Memorial Quilt. This visual language, from “Silence = Death” to “He Kills Me,” has survived, even if the exact history of the political actions has not.


  • Introduction (10 minutes)
  • Partner exercise: With your partner, share the image that you picked and talk briefly about why it was significant for you and why you think others should pay more attention to it. (10 minutes)
  • Guided Discussion: As a full group, go through some of the main images that people selected, trying to open up a space for discussing the role of these images in shaping public consciousness around HIV/AIDS. Specifically, try to think about whether or not you agree with the methods of these images, the strategies these artists used, and what relevance you think they have to HIV/AIDS activism in 2016. (70 minutes)
  • Short break (5 minutes)
  • Show short film This Is Not An AIDS Advertisement (1987) by Isaac Julien (15 minutes)
  • Guided Discussion: Think about the ways in which digital technology has evolved to change the way we process information. Do you think that the strategies for creating visual protest images need to evolve? What are some strategies or tools you think might be valuable for a new crop of HIV/AIDS activists? (75 minutes)

Possible readings for the upcoming week:

  • A selection from Christadora by Tim Murphy
  • “Being Queer in America: A Journal of Disintegration” from Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration by David Wojnarowicz
  • A selection from Chronicles Of A Plague, Revisited by Andrew Holleran
  • Chloe Dzubilo: Che Gossett & Alice O’Malley in Conversation by Visual AIDS as part of their Duets series
  • Select essays and images from Félix González-Torres, edited by Julie Alt
  • Ch. 1 “Introducing Difficulty,” Conclusion from Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art by Jennifer Doyle
  • Self-portraits by Kia Labeija, available at her website:
  • “Grosse Fuge” and “Atlantis” from Atlantis: Poems by Mark Doty
  • A selection from Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry by Essex Hemphill
  • Article: “The Archaeology of Sound”: Derek Jarman’s Blue and Queer Audiovisuality in the Time of AIDS by Jacques Khalip in Differences: A journal of feminist cultural studies (2010, Vol. 21, No. 2)

Assignment: Produce 1 creative piece in any medium that focuses on HIV/AIDS in some capacity. Examples can include a poem on the loss of family member to AIDS-related complications, a piece of visual arts that uses abstraction to discuss HIV, or a creative non-fiction work that focuses on a specific historical moment in HIV/AIDS history.


Week 6: From Tragedy To Creativity, Or Remaking HIV

Despite the tremendous violence and death that haunts HIV/AIDS, artists have responded to create enduring works of art that bear witness and provide thoughtful, challenging insights into experiences living with (or interacting with) HIV in a variety of mediums.


  • Introduction (10 minutes)
  • Show Blue by Derek Jarman (80 minutes) – This film was shot in a single blue color and features a narration of Derek Jarman’s life as he begins to lose his ability to see. It was the last film made before he died.
  • Short break (5 minutes)
  • Guided discussion- Talk about the themes and strategies Jarman uses in his film, and how these strategies relate to some of the other works that were read or examined in the previous week. Also focus on how the individual creative project went, and discuss the challenges of creating such emotionally charged works. This is obviously not a full time to give every work the full complexity it deserves. Instead, it’s a chance to think about the artistic strategies used to rebuild in the face of destruction. (85 minutes)


Week 7: Midterm Exercise

In this written exam, I would ask students to focus on answering a set number of questions from a list that assess their understanding of the previously presented course material. Some possible prompts could include:


  • Knowledge about HIV/AIDS in scientific and historical discourses has changed considerably over the last few decades. Describe at least 1 scientific and 1 historical change, being sure to discuss why these new discoveries are important in our overall understanding of the HIV/AIDS epidemic that is on going.
  • HIV is not experienced uniformly. Describe how race, economic status, or geography influence access to HIV prevention and treatment. Discuss at least 1 one strategy that has been enacts to address these disparities in marginalized communities.
  • Discuss the significance of key visual iconography of early AIDS activism. What significance did phrases like “SILENCE = DEATH” have on public perceptions of HIV/AIDS and the AIDS activism since the mid 1980s?


Give out final project assignment: Ask students to present a possible social/political action, campaign, or art project they could see themselves conducting in the near future. I would ask them to bring in a map and then prepare a 15-20 minute presentation that details what their project is about, the communities that it would serve, why it is important now, and what the major challenges would be. Regardless of individual experience in organizing or public speaking, this is a great opportunity to connect academic work to a tangible outcome and own a particular project. Additionally, 15-20 page final written paper, using at least 8-10 different sources will supplement this material.

Possible readings for the upcoming week:

  • Introduction, and Ch. 3 “A brief history of the TAC” from Debunking Delusions: The Inside Story of the Treatment Action Campaign by Nathan Geffen
  • Preface, Ch. 6 “Brazil Without Homophobia, or A Technocratic Alternative to Political Parties” from Queering the Public Sphere in Mexico and Brazil by Rafael de la Dehesa
  • Introduction, Ch. 1 “The Historical Context” and Pt. 3 “AIDS and HIV Prevention” from The Night Is Young: Sexuality in Mexico in the Time of AIDS by Héctor Carrillo
  • Introduction, Ch. 1 “The Caribbean: Haiti and Cuba” from The AIDS Epidemic in Latin America by Shawn Smallman
  • Article: “Cuba Is First To Earn WHO Seal For Ending Mother-Baby HIV Transmission” by Susan Brink, NPR (July 6, 2015)
  • Article: “HIV Divides Lesbians In South Africa” by J. Lester Feder, Buzzfeed (July 17, 2013)
  • Website: The Sexperts ( run by RFSL, the LGBTQ rights organization based in Stockholm, Sweden


Additional readings (more literary):

  • Welcome To Our Hillbrow by Phaswane Mpe
  • Three Letter Plague by Jonny Steinberg


Assignment: 3-5 pages of writing that compares and contrasts responses to HIV in at least 2 different countries. You may use the sources provided and add any additional resources as necessary.



Week 8: Global Perspectives on HIV/AIDS

HIV/AIDS is a global health crisis, affecting every country around the US. A significant portion of written material about the HIV/AIDS crisis globally focuses on South Africa—a country who went from AIDS denialism to the most progressive HIV/AIDS policies in the world—and Latin America. The idea here is to look at how other countries are addressing HIV/AIDS and what unique social or political concerns might influence how future activism develops.


  • Introduction to film (5 minutes)
  • Show Simon & I (2002) a documentary on Simon Nkoli and Bev Ditsie, friends and activists in South Africa (55 minutes)
  • Partner exercise: Working with a partner, discuss the Simon & I What were some of the key takeaways you had from the film? What were the ways in which you didn’t or couldn’t identify with the narrative? What are some other questions you have about Simon, Bev, or HIV/AIDS in general? (30 minutes)
  • Short break (5 minutes)
  • Guided Discussion: Come back as a group to share your takeaways from the breakout discussions. Work through common threads and themes as they are revealed in the course of the discussion. (85 minutes)

Possible readings for the upcoming week:

  • Introduction, Ch. 4 “The Collaborative Archive: Aliza Shapiro’s DATUM” from Ephemeral Material: Queering the Archive by Alana Kumbier
  • “Open Up! LGBT History Coming Out Of The Closet” from Queers Online: LGBT Digital Practices in Libraries, Archives, and Museums, edited by Rachel Wexelbaum
  • Introduction, Ch. 5 “AIDS Activism and Public Feelings” from An Archive of Feelings by Ann Cvetkovich
  • Ch. 5 “Collaborative Encounters” from Design, When Everybody Designs by Ezio Manzini
  • Introduction “The Body And Knowledge In Queer Oral History” from Bodies of Evidence: The Practice of Queer Oral History, edited by Nan Alamilla Boyd and Horacio N. Roque Ramírez
  • Harvard page on acquiring the ACT UP Oral History Archive:

Assignment: Select one interview from the ACT UP Oral History Archive to read. Write 2-4 pages on the relationship between this interview and larger archival practices. What did you find interesting about the particular story? Are there any ways you would change the ACT UP Oral History Archive? This could be in terms of design, the stories that are told, accessibility, etc.



Week 9: Archival Arrival, Making HIV Stories That Last

Deep and meaningful HIV/AIDS stories often do not make it to traditional archives, into public school curricula or in popular culture. This is why understanding archival theories and design practice in relationship to historical uses of these practices is important.

  • Group Exercise: Create a specific sample scenario that presents small groups with an archival challenge. (For example: Kyle wants to collect stories from individuals who work in HIV/AIDS nonprofits or with healthcare organizations.) The purpose of this exercise is to get groups to think of how they would go about solving this challenge, the ethical considerations they would need to address and, if relevant, which medium(s) they would use to present these stories. (90 minutes)
  • Short Break (5 minutes)
  • Guided Discussion: Come back as a full group to discuss how the exercise went. What strategies or readings did you use that were assigned to help work through a particular archival challenge? Did you think about some of the realistic concerns of your projects? (I.e. Time, money, or labor) Focus the discussion on archives as being in service of communities, thinking about strategies for accessibility in the future. (85 minutes)

Possible readings for the upcoming week: TBD



Week 10: What’s Next In A Trump Era

Section TBD – Still trying to figure out how to address this given the rapidly changing nature of our current political system.


Week 11: Presentations

Please note that the amount of time these presentations will take depends on how many students are in the class. The assumption is that these are small seminar classes with 20 students or less. Should you have a much smaller group (approximately 5-7), you can make these presentations more interactive, asking for feedback from other students in the class. Regardless, it would be great to ask for other students to ask one question of the presenter. (I.e. Have you looked at the role of x y z in your project design?)

  • Students present projects (180 minutes)


Week 12: Presentations

  • Continue presentations (160 minutes)
  • End of class wrap up (20 minutes) and hand out additional resource list for future engagement


Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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