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Higher Education Modules

Society at Odds: the Evolution of AIDS Outreach and Education in America

Class 2: Responding to AIDS, Inciting Action

As cases of AIDS increased in the early 1980s, communities banded together to speak up, advocate and care for those affected; these activist groups were some of the first responders to AIDS, most notably in the gay community, which was and has been dramatically affected by the disease. Activists stressed awareness and pushed for improved information at every level by pressuring city, state, and federal governments, as well as peers and communities. These efforts involved a range of tactics and tones. The class uses two primary source readings—a play by Larry Kramer and the “PWA Coalition Portfolio”—which offer examples of how AIDS activist groups presented, argued, shared and articulated their concerns about the lack of information about AIDS, as well as confronted its social stigma. Kramer provides a fictional account that is deeply based on his own experience in founding the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP). The “PWA Coalition Portfolio” includes a copy of the Denver Principles, a declaration of rights for PWAs (People with AIDS), as well as correspondence and photographs from key moments of activist action.


Kramer, Larry. The Normal Heart. New York: Penguin Books, 1987. “PWA Coalition Portfolio.” October, 43 (Winter, 1987), pp. 147-168.

Discussion Questions
  1. What are the main arguments of the Denver Principles? Are these arguments different than Kramer’s and, if so, how? Summarize and explain the agenda of each piece.
  2. What is the significance of labeling someone with AIDS as a “victim”? How might that term be different than describing someone as a “person with AIDS”?
  3. Discuss the character of Dr. Emma Brookner in the play. How is her response as a fictional doctor different than the real doctor Callen describes in the “PWA Portfolio”? How do you account for the different responses within the medical community?
  4. What is the difference between describing someone as “dying of AIDS” and “living with AIDS”? How does this shape the outreach and education efforts represented in the class readings?
  5. What is the significance of the staging directions in the “About the Production”? Would these facts continue to be relevant if the play was staged now? How would you update the staging directions for today? Why?