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Computing and the AIDS Crisis

Topical Overview

The emergence of HIV/AIDS and the ensuing AIDS Crisis had a seismic impact on the LGBT community and continues to reverberate today. Following the first documented cases in San Francisco in 1981, the rapidly-spreading virus was dubbed by the CDC Gay-Related Autoimmune Disease, or GRID. However, in popular media it was often called the "gay plague," and this conflation of sexual orientation and disease fueled homophobic discrimination and discouraged individuals from seeking needed treatment. Governmental failure to act led to a wave of AIDS activism by groups like ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) and Queer Nation that aimed to not only challenge public perceptions of PWAs (People With AIDS) but also urge the government to increase funding to AIDS research and increase access to needed treatments.

For PWAs and their caregivers, access to up-to-date information and adequate medical treatment remained one of their biggest challenges throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Public stigma meant these individuals could feel isolated and cut off from a wider community of others going through similar experiences. Computer communication—specifically a then-new technology, the Bulletin Board System (or BBS)—seemed to address both of these needs. A new medical study that could take weeks to circulate was available within hours on a BBS. Multiple different BBSes sprang up in the mid-1980s into the early 1990s, all aimed specifically at serving PWAs and caregivers. Some BBSes, like CAIN and AEGIS, focused on providing access to medical information to both professionals and PWAs. Others, such as Critical Path and AIDS Info BBS, emphasized community organizing, support, and information exchange.

This teaching guide is meant to help introduce students to the relevant issues surrounding the AIDS Crisis, AIDS activism, information circulation, and computing technology. 

Key Terms and Concepts

  • HIV/AIDS: Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) are a variety of conditions that result from an HIV infection. Most notably, the virus weakens the immune system, increasing individuals' risk of developing opportunistic infections. 

  • AIDS Crisis/AIDS Epidemic: In the 1980s and early 1990s, HIV and AIDS began spreading rapidly throughout the United States. Though the disease had been present in the 1970s, the first notable cases were identified in San Francisco. At the time, the CDC named this disease Gay-Related Autoimmune Disease, or GRID, and in popular media was often called the "gay plague." This popular belief influenced both public and governmental attitudes toward People with AIDS (PWAs). Public fear of AIDS drove homophobic discrimination, up to an including violence, against gay men. PWAs often had limited access to adequate care or up-to-date medical knowledge about the virus. As a result, groups such as ACT UP and Queer Nation engaged in direct action protests to draw public attention to the Crisis and challenge governmental complacency.

  • Bulletin Board System (BBS): BBSes, or Bulletin Board Systems, were some of the first publicly available ways individuals communicated via modem. BBSes had lots of different functions, many of which are mirrored in contemporary social media: users could chat, send and receive email, log into remote databases, and host files. BBS owners were commonly called sysops (for system operator).

Selected Primary Sources

Discussion Questions

  • After reviewing some of the video footage of AIDS activists' protests, what are their major demands? What kinds of information do they need?

  • How did the average individual learn about new information and world events in the late 1980s? What were the advantages and limitations of these methods? How did computer communication differ?

  • Research more about the background of the sysops of AIDS BBSes. How did their past experiences sharing information inform their BBSes?

Classroom Activity

Exploring the archive: Break students into small groups and have them download a copy of the Caregivers mailing list archive. Assign each group a folder and have them take ten minutes to read through the messages in order (files are in the order they were received by the email server). Note: Some of these messages deal with personal loss and may be difficult to read.

When that time is up, have them discuss: What kinds of things are folks talking about? How do they talk to each other (tone, style, etc.)? Do you notice any long-term connections emerging? Finally, based on what you know, how is a digital mailing list different from an in-person support group? Once they've finished discussion, have them discuss each question all together.

Suggested Readings and Resources

Early Computer Communication

  • Driscoll, Kevin. "Social media's dial-up roots." IEEE Spectrum 53, no. 11 (2016): 54-60.
  • Delwiche, Aaron. "Early Social Computing: The Rise and Fall of the BBS Scene (1977-1995)." The SAGE handbook of social media (2018): 35-52.


AIDS and Computing