In the second half of the last Century when the LGBTQ community found its very survival was at risk, even at its darkest moments there was usually also a bright beacon of light and hope. As the AIDS pandemic devastated us indiscriminately in the 1980’s most of us felt overwhelmed and helpless, but there were a handful of exceptional people who empowered us to take charge and fight back.
Several of these leaders, like Larry Kramer and Vito Russo, became famous and rightly acknowledged on an international basis as iconic queer figures. Others who were also on the front line and to whom we shall eternally be grateful too, have all been forgotten except to a close few.
Connie Norman. the self-styled AIDS Diva is one such person. However thanks now to a compelling new doc by filmmaker Dante Alencastre which tells Norman’s truly remarkable story, that will hopefully all change.
In the first few moments of this profile Valerie Spencer a black transwoman who organized with Norman, and took over to lead many of Norman’s activities shortly before her passing, summed up her legacy ‘we are now kick-ass queens today because of Connie!”
Norman was an out transgendered woman in L.A. who found her real power and strength after being diagnosed with HIV + in 1987. She freely admits that up to then, she had hardly been a model citizen with her drug and drink problems landing her with jail time. Also, she had to cope with the constant brutality of the LA Police who would use her as a punching bag just for ‘being a sissy”.
However, in 1987 time, such a diagnosis was considered an automatic death sentence. To make matters worse many trans women had to ‘present as men’ again to be able to get what limited medical help was available. Norman sat at home for two months and read all about AIDS that she could lay her hands on, and then got up and merged back into the community.
She immersed herself in Act-UP LA and was both outspoken, passionate, and articulate and so soon found herself In a leadership position. There is some wonderful archival of her rallying crowds at sit-ins and protest as ACT-UP is trying to get LA County to open up hospital beds to HIV patients. She also made her presence felt by being at the forefront at gatherings outside the FDA who were famously dragging their heels in authorizing desperately needed new medications.
Whilst others like Kramer were spurred on by anger, Norman’s own strength was her capacity to use love to get over the hatred hurled at the LGBTQ community. With her actions and positive she helped to outmaneuver the plaque which very few were interested in at the time.
The doc also shows that as an activist Norman was so committed protected trans rights, trans dignity, and trans visibility. To us watching what was just as important was how she avoided the trap that so many of us queers do not, by genuinely embracing gay men, lesbians, dykes, and anyone else on the LGBTQ spectrum totally equally.
Norman was an imposing figure whose passion for positivity even in this very dark time was nothing less than remarkable. When she went to meetings, she really took part and made herself and her ideas heard. This was not, she said, a time to be silent.
Our community has always had powerful advocates, but Norman was much more than that. She was a warrior. an icon. As she approached her own death, she refused to ease up on any of her work. Her advice to us all was still ‘let no one allow you not to be yourself”.
Connie Norman, AIDS Diva died in 1996 the same year protease inhibitors were introduced She had fit a whole lifetime into her 47 years.