With an overview of the ACT UP story having been told in compelling and detailed documentaries such as Jim Hubbard’s United in Anger: A History of ACT UP and David France’s How to Survive a Plague, it’s pleasing to now see significant members being focused on individually, such as trans trailblazer Connie Norman, a broadcaster, columnist, and one of the public faces of ACT UP/LA.
As it opens Dante Alencastre’s 60-minute documentary, AIDS DIVA: The Legend of Connie Norman, presents a treasure trove of archive photographs as it evocatively sets the scene of queer liberation in pre-AIDS San Francisco which the Texas-born Norman experienced, with some great nightclub images as we see the community “collectively shaking off years of shame and repression”, as one of the talking heads says. Then the early rumours about a “gay cancer” tragically curtail the queer sexual revolution.
Quickly becoming a committed activist, Norman, who described herself as an “ex-drag queen, ex-hooker, ex-IV drug user, ex-high risk youth, and current post-operative transsexual woman who is HIV positive”, was put forward to do press interviews on behalf of ACT UP/LA. She proved to be a natural, channeling her sense of urgency, anger, and passion into an engaging and relatable message, while also being able to hold her cool with California’s conservative commentators and talk show hosts of the day.
In the mist of the AIDS crisis in 1991 California’s Republican governor Pete Wilson vetoed a bill which would have protected private employees from being discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. Resulting in outrage it helped to unite a fragmented LGBTQ community in a common cause and sparked protests which Connie was heavily involved in, as documented in the archive video footage.
Many of the highlights of AIDS Diva come from archive footage of her fiercely articulate and persuasive interviews and cable show appearances, including one particularly powerful segment where she reads aloud from her regular Tribal Writes newspaper column, railing against what she saw as the inaction of the LGBTQ community and their silence at the government’s mishandling of AIDS. In a poignant clip from what would be one of her final television appearances in October 1995, knowing that her death was imminent, she talks eloquently about her take on gender and leading a fulfilled life, being true to ones inner-self, and the blessing in the curse of AIDS being that it taught “compassion to the compassionless”.
Throughout the film we also get to know Connie through talking head interviews with her friends, colleagues and ACT UP peers, with activist and former executive director of both the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Torie Osborn, making the case for Connie’s significance as a figure. “I think it’s really important to realize whose shoulders you stand on”, Osborn says as she makes the link through time between social movements, from Connie Norman to Emma González. One of the most engaging contributions comes from activist and social worker Valerie Spencer, Connie’s friend whom she chose as her public policy advocate successor before her death, who says “We’ve always had some powerful advocates, but when we talk about icons we can’t forget Connie.” While acknowledging that she had largely been forgotten, Spencer says that with this film “It’s time to wake up Connie, get busy again.”
As well as making a strong case for Norman’s dedication and effectiveness as an AIDS activist, Alencastre also devotes time to giving us a sense of the woman in her personal life, her marriage to her “nellie” husband Bruce, and her evolving views on gender as a “spectrum”. Connie became interested in Indigenous concepts of gender and the two-spirit identity, and at one point we hear her say, “There is so little of us that is our gender and so much of us that is our humanity”.
This is an important and lovingly-crafted tribute to “the self-appointed AIDS Diva” that powerfully makes the case for her as an integral part of LGBTQ+ history and an inspiration to the activists of today.
By James Kleinmann
Available on BFI Player as part of the 35th edition of BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival which runs March 17th – 28th 2021.