A New Documentary by Dante Alencastre Celebrates the Life and Work of Connie Norman, ACT UP Los Angeles Firebrand
by Hank Trout
The summer of 2021 has brought us a bumper crop of reckonings with the history of AIDS activism. After 82, the brilliant documentary by Steve Keeble and Ben Lord, which traces the history of the AIDS crisis in London, has finally come to America. Sarah Schulman’s monumental Let the Record Show [A&U, August 2021] and Peter Staley’s memoir Never Silent give us an oral history and a personal record of the work and legend of ACT UP New York. HBO’s The Legend of the Underground and FX’s Pride reached wide audiences with our stories. Martina Clark’s My Unexpected Life gives us an inside look at her activism within the United Nations. The documentary Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker [A&U, May 2021] reminds us of the transgressive art and blistering rage of “artivist” David Wojnarowicz. It’s been quite a year for LGBTQ history.
To that list, we can now add the exuberant, lovingly produced documentary AIDS DIVA: The Legend of Connie Norman. Documentary filmmaker Dante Alencastre has compiled television interviews, other newly discovered videos, and surviving friends’ testimonials to tell the story of Ms. Norman, the much-loved firebrand of ACT UP Los Angeles, trailblazing trans activist, and self-proclaimed “AIDS Diva.” The very informative, moving documentary reminds us that ACT UP activism was not limited to New York City and San Francisco.
“There is still a lot of pain surrounding the past, folks carrying their grief, their PTSD, their loss within,” Mr. Alencastre said when I asked him why ACT UP Los Angeles has received less attention than its New York counterpart. “L.A. is forward-thinking and does not look back often, unless it is forced to by revisited trauma or accident. But when we mentioned Connie’s name to some people, there was a smile and immediate response to share their stories, photos, videos, any vestiges of that time when they were incredibly radical and revolutionary.”
Radical and revolutionary indeed. Connie Norman described herself as “ex-drag queen, ex-hooker, ex-IV drug user, ex-high-risk youth, and current post-operative transsexual woman who is HIV-positive” and simply “a human being seeking my humanity.” Because of her multiple, fluid, and evolving LGBTQ identities, Norman was well equipped to understand and articulate the complex intersectionality of gender, gender identity, sexual politics, homophobia and transphobia, AIDS, misogyny, and public policy. “Step one: We need to get pissed off!” she proclaimed. She told one ACT UP rally, “We’re in a clear and present danger every moment that we do not fight back with everything we’ve got. We must rise from the grief and denial and take our lives back.”
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Norman lived in San Francisco and worked at the legendary Trocadero Transfer, the largest and most popular dance bar in the city. She recalled those nights at the Troc as idyllic, a time when “we began defining ourselves as a community,” a great diverse community dancing and “shaking off the oppression of the genocidal neglect of Reagan.” After she moved to Los Angeles and tested positive for HIV in 1987, Norman immediately joined ACT UP and began her ferocious activism. She became known for her “soulful and salty rantings and humor.” She also became known for being absolutely fearless. She organized and participated in a week-long vigil for a dedicated care facility in 1989; in 1990, she was arrested at an ACT UP demonstration in which she and fifty other protestors staged a sit-in in the offices of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. When Governor Pete Wilson vetoed AB101, a bill outlawing discrimination against LGBTQ folx in housing, employment, and healthcare, she led seventeen days of protest that culminated in a rally of 20,000 people at the corner of San Vicente and Santa Monica in L.A. She also participated in marches on Sacramento, California, and Washington, D.C., for queer rights. At the March on Washington, she bemoaned the fact that HIV/AIDS issues had been pushed to the back burner by activists who were putting more attention and effort into the issue of LGBTQ folx in the military.
Like Daniel entering the lion’s den, Ms. Norman agreed to appear on “Hot Seat,” the raucous television show hosted by ultra-conservative, racist, homophobic shit-stirrer Wally George. She fearlessly and forcefully deflected George’s and his audience’s bigoted wrath like a champion boxer deflecting punches. You can’t help cheering her on when you watch the clip of her on the show, her righteous rage knocking the stuffing out of the host’s and audience’s ignorant rambling. Her friend Larry Kramer must have been proud.
Colleagues recall that when necessary, Norman was as brash, brazen, loud, demanding, confrontational, and ferocious in her activism, but they also recalled that “she never let her rage overtake her,” and praised her ability to mute that rage, put on her “good girl” attitude, and deal with “the powers that be.” In 1993 she gave a lecture at the Sociology Department at the University of California Santa Barbara, in which—quite ahead of her time—she defined gender as a fluid spectrum rather than a binary either/or. She also served as Director of Public Policy at the AIDS Service Center in Pasadena, California. For four years she wrote a bi-weekly column, “Tribal Writes,” for San Diego’s LGBTQ newspaper Update, giving her a wide audience for her musings on HIV/AIDS, intersectional politics, justice, freedom, and her love for her tribe.
Director Alencastre is no stranger to making documentaries with a focus on the social justice and visibility of the transgender community. His previous films include, in Peru, En El Fuego (2008); El Fuego Dentro (2011); and in Los Angeles, Transvisible: Bamby Salcedo’s Story (2013), and Raising Zoey (2016).
“Our collective consciousness needs these stories,” he told A&U, “As a community we need to know our history and whose shoulders we stand on. Our community lived through the AIDS pandemic, we were demonized, politically used as pawns, neglected, and rejected by our families. One bright spot was that it brought our community together; we tended for our sick and took to the streets like Connie did. We build upon the resistance and resilience of our brothers, sisters and non-binary folks that came before us. Connie’s activist life story teaches us compassion, empathy, and most of all the inextricable humanity that unite us.”
When Connie Norman died in 1996, she left us a blueprint for intersectional activism. Notes Alencastre: “Connie’s legacy lives on [in] her beloved queer community, who are living authentic and productive lives for the betterment of all of us. She taught us to organize, speak up, be visible, act up, fight back and most of all to do the work. She would be taking it to the streets and raging against the anti-trans youth laws that have been enacted around the country. She would support many causes because she was intentionally intersectional. She was a street fighter so she would be into marching with Trans Black Lives Matter, Stop Anti-Asian Hate, Equality Act, global trans rights, ERA, so many causes, but she would make time. Also, she would keep fighting to find a cure for AIDS, to stop stigmatization of HIV survivors, and for universal health care.”
Alencastre also addressed the need to tell these stories of LGBTQ activism now before it’s too late. “Our storytellers and first-hand witnesses are getting older, memories fade, and getting the record straight becomes more urgent. The boxes of mementoes, letters, photos, videos of loves gone many years ago clamor to be uncovered and re-introduced to our zeitgeist.”
AIDS DIVA: The Legend of Connie Norman has had several successful virtual screenings in festivals in the U.K., Korea, Italy, and Miami, were the film won the audience award, and its first in-person screening at Outfest at the Directors Guild of America. Upcoming festival appearances in person will be Mexico and Australia, and, in the U.S., Palm Springs, California, Georgia, Oregon, and possibly New York. The filmmaker hopes that the film will be available for online streaming sometime in 2022.
Hank Trout, A&U Senior Editor, interviewed writer Micheal Ighodaro for the September 2021 issue.