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New documentary salutes transgender 'AIDS diva' Connie Norman

The fierce ACT UP L.A. leader "gave her breath for us," one fellow activist said.
AIDS activist Connie Norman in the documentary “AIDS Diva: The Legend of Connie Norman."
AIDS activist Connie Norman in the documentary “AIDS Diva: The Legend of Connie Norman."Courtesy Chuck Stallard

An outspoken leader in AIDS activism is finally getting her due 25 years after her death with the documentary “AIDS Diva: The Legend of Connie Norman,” screening Oct. 17 as part of NewFest, the New York City LGBTQ film festival. 

“AIDS Diva” was a title Norman, a transgender woman and ex-sex worker who overcame addiction and abuse to become a leader in ACT UP L.A. in the late 1980s, gave herself. It was a hint at the warm, humorous woman behind the forceful activist who got arrested, went on hunger strikes and carried a bullhorn like it was an extension of her hand. 

“We’re not doing enough!” Norman can be seen shouting at fellow demonstrators in one clip from the film. “You’re not doing enough, I’m not doing enough. And AIDS is not going away!”

Director Dante Alencastre has documented the experiences of other transgender women, including youth activist Zoey Luna, TransLatin@ Coalition founder Bamby Salcedo and the trans community in Lima, Peru. He was looking for his next subject when a friend suggested Norman. 

“I had heard of her, but I knew very little,” said Alencastre, who moved to Los Angeles 14 years ago. “Almost like she was a ghost from the past.”

Around the time he started his research, someone put up an alumni page on Facebook for members of the L.A. chapter of ACT UP, or the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. They used Norman’s picture for the cover photo. 

“I immediately reached out and said, ‘I want to talk to anyone who knew her,’” Alencastre said. “It was like opening up Pandora’s box.”

He was put in touch with Peter Cashman, a journalist and founding ACT UP L.A. member, who appears in “AIDS Diva.” Cashman filmed Norman extensively and had boxes full of VHS tapes. 

“He told me he never looked at them, but we were welcome to use whatever we wanted,” Alencastre said. As he digitized hours of Norman’s interviews and speeches, he said he could tell how ahead of her time she was.

“I was kind of surprised by the frank and explicit way she would talk about herself,” he said. “Back then, I imagine people were taken aback. But she was bold enough to make an audience look beyond her appearance. There was no consciousness of trans back then. There was no ‘T’ in LGBT.”

AIDS activist Connie Norman in the documentary “AIDS Diva: The Legend of Connie Norman."Courtesy Chuck Stallard

Michael Weinstein, president of the L.A.-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation, recalls working alongside Norman and credits her willingness to engage with friends and foes alike.

“She’d speak to people I would ignore, who I didn’t think were worth the time of day,” Weinstein said.

One of those people was Wally George, a conservative Southern California talk show host whose stage she appeared on. (In “AIDS Diva,” we see Norman stand up to taunts from George’s audience.)

“She believed that through the force of her personality and her words she could get people to think and feel,” Weinstein added. “And she succeeded a lot more often than I thought possible.”

Being a professional activist requires a thick skin and a loud voice. And Norman had both. 

“She had a mouth on her. Thankfully it was connected to a mind,” David Reid, producer of XEK-AM’s short-lived “The Connie Norman Show” radio show, told The Pride in 2016. “And she was a she; on many occasions, I heard her say, ‘I paid $50,000 to be who I am, and I get to pick my pronouns.’”   

Torie Osborn, director from 1987 to 1993 of what was then known as the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center, said it was sometimes shocking to see the anger Norman could summon with a megaphone.

“She’d say, ‘Oh, I’m just a Midwestern girl.’ But I don’t think she ever forgot her struggles or where she came from," Osborn said.

That ferocity was tempered with a genuine sweetness, Osborn added. “I think it’s a gift of the LGBT community to be both tough and soft, if we allow ourselves to access those parts. And Connie did, absolutely.”

Longtime transgender activist Valerie Spencer, who was mentored by Norman, jokingly called her “a fake and a fraud.” 

“Publicly she was this bombastic warrior. People thought ‘Oh here she comes!’ And, yeah, she could shake the building with her vibrato,” Spencer said. “But inside, she was so tender. She gave me jewelry — a beautiful garnet necklace. ... At the heart of who she was, she was a tender pussycat.”

“AIDS Diva” co-producer John Johnston remembered Norman lending him her jacket to keep warm during a vigil at the University of Southern California in 1989. 

“In the height of everything, even as she was battling for her own life, she’d ask if you were OK,” Weinstein said.

Born in small-town Texas, Norman ran away from home at 14 and lived on the streets of Hollywood before getting off drugs and transitioning in the mid-1970s. She was diagnosed with HIV in 1987 and soon became active with local AIDS groups. 

“I often tell people that I am an ex-drag queen, ex-hooker, ex-IV drug user, ex-high risk youth and current postoperative transsexual woman who is HIV-positive,” Norman told The Los Angeles Times shortly before her death in 1996. “I have everything I ever wanted, including a husband of 10 years, a home and five adorable longhaired cats. ... I do, however, regret the presence of this virus.”

She didn’t have the education or polish of other activists, but she had the survival skills she learned on the streets, Spencer said. And more important, “she was a person confronting her own mortality and the lack of compassion in our society. When you’re in that situation it can just fuel you with a powerful rage.”

Among other roles, Norman was director of public policy for the All Saints AIDS Service Center in Pasadena, California, and sat on the L.A. County Commission on HIV. She wrote a bimonthly column, “Tribal Writes,” for the San Diego gay magazine Update and co-hosted “The Gay and Lesbian News Magazine,” a cable-access show out of Long Beach, California. 

On all those fronts Norman called out those she felt had allowed the epidemic to continue, either through action or inaction, including the Reagan and Bush administrations, the FDA and the state of California. When Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, vetoed a bill that would have prohibited discrimination against workers because of sexual orientation, Norman helped lead a march on the state capital in Sacramento.

“It boils down to how much you want to live,” she wrote of her advocacy in POZ magazine in 1995. 

“I want to be here on this planet every minute that I can and I’m willing to do whatever I can do — comfortably — to stay here,” she said. “Sue me, but I believe that all of the medicines and all of the prophylactics are eventually going to come up against this virus and lose. You can either sit and wait for that to happen or you can go ahead and live your life.”

Norman threw herself into her activism until the end, likely at the expense of her own well-being.

“She had two choices: pull back and focus on her own health or keep doing the work,” Cashman says in the film. “And there was just one thing she knew how to do, which was the work.”

Spencer was in her mid-20s, getting active in AIDS ministry through the Unity Fellowship Church, when she met Norman, already a seasoned pro. The two only saw each other a few more times when, one Sunday morning, Spencer stepped outside of church to get some air and saw Norman smoking a cigarette. 

“We kikied for a second and then she got real,” Spencer recalled, using a slang word for gossip. “She said ‘Listen, darling, I’m dying.'”

Ministering to people with AIDS had accustomed Spencer to death. Norman’s blunt statement “didn’t blow me away,” she said.

“But then she said, ‘I’ve been watching you, and I want you to take over. I want you to make sure my tranny sisters are taken care of,’" Spencer recalled, using a term that has been reclaimed by some in the trans community but is widely considered a slur. “I was young and didn’t have a job and this white woman was coming to me asking me to take on all this.” 

Spencer wasn’t quite sure what “taking over” entailed, but in short order Norman had her on committees, conducting trainings and overseeing contracts. 

“Within a year I was suited and booted,” Spencer said. “She gave me my career. She gave me my whole existence. I don’t know why she thought I would be good at it, but I became a star. ”

Now a licensed therapist and ordained minister in Southern California, Spencer said Norman “changed me forever.”

Trans visibility was barely nascent at the time, but Norman’s gender identity “was a nonissue” among activists, according to Weinstein.  

Unlike its New York counterpart, ACT UP L.A. “wasn’t dominated by Wall Street power brokers,” Osborn said. “Most of the leadership was leftists and activists who came out of other movements. We were all considered outsiders, so there was inclusiveness for anyone who wanted to be a part.”

Osborn met Norman during a civil disobedience training, where Norman was preparing participants for what to expect if they were arrested at a protest. 

“The truth of it is, Connie was always welcome because she was so damn good,” Osborn said. She was fierce, articulate, a great organizer, “and she had an ear for a sound bite.” 

“She would have a million Twitter followers today,” Osborn added. “I can’t imagine her not being a superstar.” 

Among her many causes, Norman had been a staunch advocate for the creation in 1988 of the Chris Brownlie Hospice, the first hospice in California specifically for people with AIDS.

On July 15, 1996, at age 47, she died there. 

“When I spoke to her on the phone, she was dying,” Osborn recalled of their last conversation. “But she had accepted it. The same way she embraced her life, her activism and her gender journey, she fully embraced her death. ‘This is my dying time,’ she said.” 

Three months after her passing, on Oct. 13, Norman’s ashes were among those sprinkled on the White House lawn. The departed were loved ones who, in the words of an ACT UP press release, had been “murdered by AIDS and killed by government neglect.” 

After that, though, Connie Norman was largely forgotten. 

New medications made HIV a more manageable disease, and a generation came of age not knowing the sacrifices she and others made.

“I’m OK with us forgetting about her for a time,” Spencer says in “AIDS Diva.” “Because it allowed her energy to have some peace. She was such a warrior she needed a rest on the other side … But now it’s time to wake up, Connie, and get busy again.”

“We can’t ever do enough in recognition of Connie Norman,” Spencer told NBC News. “We stand on her shoulders. She gave her breath for us. It’s time for Connie to get her face on our Mount Rushmore.”

Norman’s name is coming back into the public consciousness: In addition to “AIDS Diva, former West Hollywood Mayor John Jude Duran penned a musical about Norman, the Los Angeles Blade reported. The show had a table reading in March. 

On Sept. 10, the Connie Norman Transgender Empowerment Center opened in West Hollywood, and the city proclaimed the date the Connie Norman Transgender Empowerment Day. Originally built by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation in the 1990s as a hospice for the dying, the building will now serve as an incubator for local trans advocacy groups, as well as a food bank, a clothing donation center and a health clinic. 

Nelson’s childhood teddy bear has a place of honor in a plexiglass display case.

“Connie said to me on her deathbed — she made me promise I would take care" of her trans sisters, Weinstein said. “This was the culmination of that promise.”

The center will carry on Norman’s work, as well as her name. Alencastre hopes “AIDS Diva” does much the same and calls the film a “blueprint to show how anyone can make a difference.”

“This was a woman who was always learning and evolving and growing ... who had enormous empathy for people who hated her," he said. "She was an eternal optimist for a better humanity.”

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