Learning from World AIDS Day

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  • We must not erase the toll of the AIDS epidemic from our historical memory.
  • Health teachers aren’t the only teachers who can/should talk about HIV/AIDS on World AIDS Day and beyond.

Author’s Note: HIV/AIDS is absolutely a world issue; however, this post focuses on its impact in America most prevalently. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, we are quickly approaching 700,000 fatalities from COVID-related illnesses in America. 

Many are calling COVID the ‘deadliest pandemic in America’s history.’ When I hear this, however, my mind flashes immediately to the AIDS epidemic that started forty years ago.

Since the onset of AIDS in the United States, 700,000 people have died from AIDS-related complications over a 40 year period. We must not erase the toll that the AIDS epidemic has on our history and our culture, from our memory. 

What’s this got to do with education? Everything.

World AIDS Day began in 1988, in an effort to raise awareness about the issue globally. HIV/AIDS has seen prevalence not only in the United States, but in regions of Africa and South America. According to HIV.gov, “There were approximately 37.7 million people across the globe with HIV in 2020. Of these people, 36 million were adults and 1.7 million were children aged 0-14 years. More than half (53%) were women and girls” (“The Global HIV/AIDS epidemic”).

Globally, new infection has declined by 31 percent since 2010, which offers some hope. This is due to the development of new drugs and medications that slow the progression from HIV to AIDS, reducing the likelihood of death from illness.

An American Issue

Early organizers in the fight against HIV sought to spread education about the disease. Coalitions like ACTUP brought serious attention to the fact that HIV was disproportionately affecting the queer community. They also highlighted that it was an issue all humans should care about; not just LGBTQIA+ people, as was initially thought

With this assumption came stigmatizing attitudes toward addiction and LGBTQIA+ people. These harmful sentiments thrived in the United States (and beyond). Homophobia and negative attitudes toward queer and trans people skyrocketed. Even health officials and politicians began calling the disease GRID (gay-related immunodeficiency), which only helped to fuel stigma toward queer people, particularly gay men in America. 

Consequently, it wasn’t until Ryan White, a 13-year-old boy from Indiana, was diagnosed with HIV from a blood transfusion, that Americans began to understand that HIV could affect anyone. 

Forty years since the first reported cases of HIV/AIDS in 1981, we must also update the ways we teach our children about health, about bodies, and about community; not from a place of fear, but from a place of care, destigmatization, and harm reduction (via things like PrEP, proper reproductive education).

We must not erase the toll that the AIDS epidemic has on our history and our culture, from our memory. Click To Tweet

A Multidisciplinary Issue

This isn’t just about shifting our health education, either. The political history of the AIDS epidemic and the subsequent call to action is queer history. It is American history. It is a science exploration into cells, virology, and the human body. Teachers have a unique opportunity to invite this history into their classrooms.

Additionally, students might investigate how media is used to share information. Articles from the New York Times that reported on the discovery of AIDS in America are a fascinating place to start. When engaging in media studies, ask students to consider:

  • Who is speaking? What are they saying about the issue?
  • Are they inviting the people they are talking about to the table to share their stories and their truth?

This topic came up last year when we watched, read, and analyzed inaugural poetry. In a subtle gesture, Maya Angelou delivers her poem at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton, while wearing a red ribbon on her lapel to raise a proverbial fist to the queer community and awareness for the ongoing AIDS epidemic. 

Talking to students about the history, realities, and implications of HIV/AIDS can help us imagine a potential for a future without it.

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Resources and Texts for Discussing the AIDS Epidemic

How to Survive a Plague (documentary)

A Queer History of the United States for Young People by Michael Bronski

Like a Love Story by Abdi Nazemian 

AIDS: Don’t Die of Prejudice by Norman Fowler

Positive by Paige Rawl

“Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals” by New York Times (1981).

“A Good ACT to Follow” with NPR Code Switch

About Cait O’Connor

Cait O’Connor is a fourth-year public school English/ESOL educator in New York, committed to social justice and equity in education and beyond.