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The AIDS Epidemic


This VOXPOP is set in San Francisco in 1986.  Though HIV 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?

Prevention - How do we balance public health and civil liberties?

Identity - Who should be the face of the fight against AIDS?

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


Role-plays take roughly 60-90 minutes for a class to play through. To run the role-play over multiple days, use the link VOXPOP will send you to re-open your session.

Create a different session for each class that you intend to use this role-play with.

Not sure how sessions work? Feel free to create a session and step through it to get a feel for the role-play. You can create as many sessions as you need.



The VOXPOP software will deliver this content to students during the role-play. Use this outline to familiarize yourself with the content of the scenario, the roles students will be assigned and the choices they will be asked to make.


Students: 6 to 50

Running Time: 60-80 minutes (the role-play can be broken into multiple sessions)



This video provides historical context.


Students are assigned to the following groups:


Activists have spent years fighting for HIV research and treatment. Now that politicians and mass media finally care about HIV/AIDS, they fear that the LGBTQ community will face more discrimination and cruelty.

Concerned Citizens

Concerned Citizens speak for everyday Americans, who are confused and scared. They don't trust the politicians and scientific "experts" who could have stopped the spread of HIV. Now we face a deadly epidemic!


Scientists are sick of dangerous behavior and misinformation about how HIV spreads. HIV is a medical crisis and needs a medically sound response!

Public Officials

Public Officials believe that a public health crisis requires a strong government response. They need Americans to give up civil liberties in order to protect society as a whole.


These videos will provide students with more detailed background on specific issues.

How should we treat an incurable disease?
Proposals students consider:

Approve AZT

In clinical trials, patients taking the new drug AZT are surviving. Cut short the trials and release AZT to the public.

Hospitals must treat HIV/AIDS

Some private hospitals won't admit patients with HIV/AIDS. Force all hospitals to treat HIV/AIDS.

How do we balance public health and civil liberties?
Proposals students consider:

Mandatory testing

The federal government will regularly test everyone in the U.S. for HIV.

Sex ed in schools

Public schools must teach sexual health education and distribute free condoms and contraceptives.

Who should be the face of the fight against AIDS?
Proposals students consider:

Bobbi Campbell

Campbell made the first public poster warning gay men about HIV/AIDS. He worked for the LGBTQ+ movement until his death.

Ryan White

Ryan White is a nice kid who was bullied and expelled from school when a blood transfusion left him HIV+.


A short video that lets students know what really happened.


Here are a few suggested discussion questions to pose at the end of the role-play.  Please feel free to use your own.

  • What similarities do you see between the AIDS epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic? What differences do you see?

  • How do we balance people's personal liberties with the public good?



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

Wikimedia Commons

World Bank Photo Collection, Flickr

Special Thanks

Kevin Impellizeri

Michael Sollitto

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