Photo: Woman with patient in SFGH AIDS ward, UC San Francisco, Library, Special Collections

The AIDS Epidemic

The AIDS Epidemic role-play explores the early days of the AIDS crisis. It asks: How should we treat an incurable disease? Who should be the face of the fight against AIDS? How do we balance civil liberties and public health? 

This VOXPOP is set in San Francisco in 1986.  Though the disease has ravaged the LGBTQ community, the wider public is just starting to understand the danger that the growing epidemic poses.  Students take on the roles of Activitsts, Concerned Citizens, Scientists and Public Officials. After being introduced to the situation, students work with other members of their group to define their values.

Students then debate and vote on three key issues:

Medicine - How should we treat an incurable disease? Rush a promising drug through FDA trials, or force hospitals to treat patients with AIDS.

Prevention - How do we balance public health and civil liberties? Mandatory testing or sex education in schools.

Identity - Who should be the face of the fight against AIDS?  The gay activist Bobbi Campbell, or the midwestern teen Ryan White.

At the end of the VOXPOP, an epilogue video lays out what actually happened.


Students: 6 to 50

Running Time: 90 minutes (the role-play can be broken into multiple sessions)

Teacher Guide: AIDS Crisis Teacher Walkthrough PDF


Jenny Lim

Mattia Romeo

Greg Trefry

Testing & Evaluation

Camillia Matuk

Talia Hurwich


Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, St. Martin's Press, 1987.

Joseph Beam (ed.), In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology, RedBone Press, 1986.

David France, How to Survive a Plague, Independent Lens, 2012.


Alan Light, Flickr

Calisphere, UC San Francisco, Special Collections

Elvert Barnes, Flickr

Food & Drug Administration

Library of Congress

Jeanne White-Ginder private collection

Jon Rawlinson, Flickr

National Institutes of Health

Paul Chinn/Los Angeles Public Library

U.S. National Library of Medicine

San Francisco Disco Preservation Society

San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Ted Eytan, Flickr
University of Southern California. Libraries
Wellcome Collection

World Bank Photo Collection, Flickr

Special Thanks

Kevin Impellizeri

Michael Sollitto