By Valerie Milano
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 8/17/21 – AIDS Activist: The Legend of Connie Norman (62 min., 2021) is an important documentary film that premieres at Outfest 2021 on Saturday, August 20, 11:30 am at the Directors Guild of America. Directed by Dante Alencastre, The Legend of Connie Norman captures the story of trans trailblazer and AIDS activist Connie Norman, who came to be known as the “AIDS Diva” in the 1990s in the thick of the AIDS crisis in Los Angeles. This is her story but also the story of the resiliency of the 1990s Los Angeles LGBTQ community which organized around ACT UP and other organizations to fight for proper health care for HIV+ members of the gay community. Connie Norman was much more than that, as she was an early strong and humane voice for trans rights. Through unforgettable footage of Norman, and interviews with her contemporaries, this film cements her name as a true legend in LGBTQIA+ history. The film incorporates much archival film and television footage to tell the story of Connie Norman, much of it in her own voice and augmented by commentary by others who knew her well including Torie Osborn, Valerie Spencer, Robin Podolsky, Doug Sadownick, Michael Weinstein, John Duran, Paul Langlotz, Mary Lucey, Peter Cashman.
We start out with Connie’s commentary on gay life in the 1970s when she moved from her Texas origins to Los Angeles and enjoyed the lively gay life of San Francisco, where she worked at the Trocadero and found the disco scene a way that gay people were collectively shaking off years of shame and oppression. Of course, there were lots of drugs and a lot of sex and Connie was even a sex worker for a while. She had made her transition to being a woman early on in the 1970s. She points out in archival footage that it was in the gay discos that the gay and lesbian people first began to define themselves as a community and to understand what community means. But, of course, the club scene evaporated in 1983, with the arrival of the AIDS epidemic, which was at first called the “gay cancer.” Torie Osborn points out that it was the lesbians in health care who first decided to do something about the failure of health care for all the gay men who were dying from AIDS. At first, there was only hospice care for gay men, as little was known about the disease and there were no AIDS tests yet. In 1987, Connie Norman tested positive for HIV and that forced her to make a decision about getting actively involved in doing something about the specter of AIDS. She came to the decision that what was going on in our society was murder and genocide and I needed to respond to it.
In 1989, Connie Norman first participated in a parade with ACT UP, the activist group fighting for better health care for people with HIV and AIDS. She was a vocal point person in the weeklong vigil at L.A. County General Hospital in 1989, where ACT UP was trying to get the L.A. County Supervisors to open more beds for sick and dying gay men. In September 1991, Connie was part of the AB 101 Veto Protest against Republican Governor Wilson, who reversed his promises and vetoed a discrimination bill to protect gays and lesbians in housing and employment/healthcare. 20,000 people took to the streets of L.A. to protest at night for two weeks. Later that year, Connie was in Sacramento for a huge march on the capital. Here she showed her amazing ability as an orator and spokesperson for the LGBTQ community confronting the AIDS crisis.
Connie Norman was a natural leader. She had a message of love and empowerment. Her rage never overtook her and she was always clear-headed in arguments with adversaries. In 1991, she had her own radio show and used it as a platform to talk about how queer people have long suffered from oppression: “There is racism, there is sexism, there is misogyny, there is homo-hatred and homo-phobia, and there is “gob-ism.” It’s Good Old Boy-ism. From the heartland of gob-ism which is Texas.” She was brilliant in television interviews. She could be a radical out on the street with a bush horn and still put on her good-girl self and negotiate with power brokers. Connie knew Harry Hay, the founder of the Radical Faeries, and became interested in the indigenous American people’s tolerance for “two-spirit” people. In a lecture she gave at UC Santa Barbara in 1993, she conceded: “I have come to the conclusion that we must return to the traditions that existed among indigenous cultures of defining gender as more of a fluid spectrum. Rather than the restrictive and narrow absolutes of just man or just woman.” Reflecting on her own travels down the split path of gender dysphoria, she put it this way: “I hope that she can become less and less my gender and more and more my humanity.”
What about Connie’s personal life? Probably not as well known is that Connie Norman had a partner, Bruce Norman, who was gay and who she described as “a nelly faggot” but whom she loved and he truly loved and respected her. The film gives us a sense of Connie as a real warm and loving person who radiated kindness and understanding. But she was also a fierce fighter and had little patience with “limousine liberals” who were doing little to stop the spread of HIV. By 1993, her health was declining but she kept on working tirelessly for others. She turned over her leadership role to Valerie Spencer, who is a leader in the trans community still today. As Valerie points out in the film, “We have HIV public policy that is trans specific because of Connie.” The life of Connie Norman was shortened by AIDS, but in her own view, AIDS was a blessing and a curse. “AIDS has taught the lesson of compassion.” Don’t just be a label – get out there and do the work like Connie Norman, who finally succumbed to AIDS in 1996. Connie Norman was the “AIDS Diva, self-appointed.”
In an interview, Dante Alencastre relates “I am always inspired by my LGBTIQ+ community in L.A, full of fierce, funny, intentional, and mindful friends and activists. I believe that Connie Norman epitomizes the strength and fearlessness that our community is being built upon, the shoulders we stand on.” He was living in New York City at the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and learned of the work of Connie Norman in California and the Los Angeles area. Alencastre points out that “we are still living fully realized as long term survivors or warriors.” In this current epidemic, there are lessons to be learned and we need to fight American anti-trans legislation and ban conversation therapy. There is still much work to be done. “Connie teaches that one voice can move mountains, in times of crises and in times of peace. We must continue to be vigilant, take to the streets, and act up.”
AIDS Activist: The Legend of Connie Norman is screening at Outfest on Saturday, August 18, 11:00 am at the Directors Guild of America. The screening will also feature Zeberiah Newman’s The Right to Try (26 min.), about the business of HIV and Big-Pharma and the work of Jeffrey Drew, who has put his life on the line to try and help find a cure for HIV. The two films bundled together will also be available online with virtual screening from 8/22 through 8/24. For tickets to the in-person screening or virtual streaming, go to: https://outfestla2021.com/aids-diva-the-legend-of-connie-norman/