A quarter century after the passing of HIV-AIDS activist Connie Norman, she’s being remembered for her relentless battle to curtail the disease and to combat homophobia and transphobia.
The outspoken figure in ACT UP/LA is the subject of the new documentary AIDS Diva: The Legend of Connie Norman, which made its Los Angeles premiere Saturday at the Outfest film festival. Dante Alencastre directed the film about a woman known for her “blatant honesty” about the challenges she had faced.
“She had a life experience of oppression and also overcoming all those obstacles—living on the streets, addiction, sex work,” Alencastre told Deadline. “When she came to ACT UP… she found a family, a family that looked up to her because she made sure she was schooling everybody… She was really a pioneer, supporting and making sure that her siblings and her children would be taken care of properly, as a proud trans woman living with HIV herself.”
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Beginning in the late 1980s, Norman led protests to demand greater funding for HIV research and treatment, an uncompromising campaign that sometimes got her arrested at public protests and removed from meetings where local and state officials discussed—or avoided discussing—the urgent issue.
“I think we need to get pissed off,” Norman says in an archival interview in the film. “And then once we really understand that that anger is justified, we’ll go out and find our own channels for it.”
Norman became a particularly effective public speaker and debater who was not afraid to engage with conservative or anti-LGBT audiences. In fact, she almost seemed to relish it.
“Connie made herself available to talk about her life in a way that was not pleading, that was proud,” her friend and fellow activist, Rabbi Robin Podolsky, recalls in the documentary. “At the same time you kind of had to succumb to her inexorable kindness. She was so warm and loving while not giving an inch.”
In 1991 Norman began hosting an evening radio show on XEK-AM focused on LGBT issues, the first program of its kind in Los Angeles. She also hosted a weekly TV show on cable television. Alencastre drew from those sources for his film, as well as an archive of materials held by Peter Cashman, a close friend of Norman’s and founding member of ACT UP/LA. The video trove illuminates Norman’s inclusive embrace of humanity.
“The thing I loved the most watching the archival footage day after day was how prescient her wisdom was and how her moral compass included everyone,” Alencastre noted. “It wasn’t like she was just saying, ‘Trans, trans, trans.’ She was including everybody who was being oppressed at the time… Our community was totally demonized and not given the proper care either by the government, or the city government or the mayor, city council and that’s why ACT UP rose, because it was people being fed up. And Connie was in the vanguard of that.”
The film previously played at festivals in London and Seoul. And it will continue traveling the world.
“Next we’re going to Sydney [Australia], and Denmark, and Mexico City and Palm Springs, Glasgow, New York, Atlanta,” Alencastre said. “That’s what the film’s about, is to make her legacy continue because especially trans youth are still being attacked… Connie would be on the streets marching and asking for their rights and for their dignity and for equality for the young lives to be visible and respected.”
Alencastre directed and produced AIDS Diva: The Legend of Connie Norman (the moniker “AIDS Diva” is one Norman gave herself). John Johnston is credited as producer, writer and researcher. Editors include Andrew Kimery, Marco Nieves, Priscila Alegria Nunez, and Mark Dashnawd. The music was composed by Jase Hill, Merissa Magdael-Lauron, and Mobygratis (the latter is a service of musician Moby, which provides access to his music free of charge to “independent and non-profit filmmakers, [and] film students”).
Discussions about potential distribution of AIDS Diva are pending.
“I’m always open to anybody that comes with a plan,” Alencastre said. “My ideal is to bring it to all those communities, all those states that need to hear her story. They need to see her fire, they need to see her motherly love, her bridge-building, her compassion and empathy.”