“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,” said Connie Norman, former member of the ACT UP Los Angeles chapter. “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 [HIV].”
Connie Norman, also known as “the AIDS Diva,” died in July of 1996 at the age of 47 of complications of AIDS. She passed away at the Chris Brownlie Hospice, a facility she helped advocate for with the AIDS Hospice Foundation (what is now called AIDS Healthcare Foundation). Her ashes were among those scattered on the White House lawn during ACT UP’s “Ashes Action” on October 13, 1996. She left behind her husband of 10 years, Bruce Norman.
Connie was diagnosed with HIV in 1987. She was fiercely active against the lack of HIV support by the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations in the ’80s and early ’90s. She called out their silence, much like Larry Kramer did in New York City.
Her legacy has inspired others to continue her work; one of these people is filmmaker Dante Alencastre.
“Connie was an innovator. She was a leader, even though she preferred to be called an ‘AIDS Diva,'” shared Alencastre. “The HIV movement comes from other movements, such as the LGBT movement, and the disruptive nature and civil disobedience that Connie contributed to it as a transgender woman is an example of that.”
Alencastre produced the documentary AIDS Diva: The Legend of Connie Norman, which has been screened at Outfest and other events in Los Angeles, to showcase Norman’s work in LA. He has produced other documentaries that capture the power of transgender women, such as films on activist Bamby Salcedo and aspiring teenage actress Zoey Luna — both of whom are local Angelenos. Alencastre believes that the HIV/AIDS movement, in tandem with LGBT rights, brought people to the forefront and taught the world about compassion.
“We have transgender ancestors who have paved the way,” said Alencastre. “Whatever you have done for the movement today, you would not have been able to do it without the help from our queer, trans elders.”
For Alencastre, this recognition is about his lifelong work, something he plans to continue following as his labor of love: “Los Angeles is my home. I found community, and when people see my work they know that it focuses on the transgender community,” he said. “Unfortunately, there is a whitewashing, cis-male focus on LGBT history in Los Angeles, and my goal is to change that.”
Alencastre studied at Columbia University. He lived in New York City during the early days of the AIDS epidemic as a queer immigrant from Peru. It was a different time, and Alencastre witnessed loved ones die from AIDS complications. “When I was in NYC, I was not an activist, but I love that Pose portrayed characters surviving and speaking out against the AIDS crisis,” he said. Although we now have shows that wholeheartedly feature trans and queer people during the AIDS epidemic, it hasn’t always been that way. For that very reason, his documentaries have an agenda: to showcase the lives of queer and trans people living their truth — and surviving and thriving with HIV.
Thankfully, he has the support he needs from the community to deliver these important messages about Connie Norman’s life and work. Some of these people are chosen family and loved ones who were mentored by Norman.
“The world should never forget Connie — I owe her everything. She set me in the right path,” shared Valerie Spencer, M.S.W. “Connie set the bar for us. She was our Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera here in Los Angeles.”
Valerie Spencer is a black transwoman who organized with Norman, and took over to lead many of Norman’s activities shortly before her passing. “Connie approached me about taking on her work in the community. She knew she was dying — she was mindful of that,” Spencer remembered. “She wanted me to take care of our trans sisters. I was so young, I had no idea what that would entail, but she set me up to deliver this agenda. Even though she knew she was fighting time, she planned accordingly.”
Norman was fearless. The documentary features archival footage of her linking arms with other ACT UP members in front of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, demanding that they address the epidemic. The video shows organizers chanting “We will not be silenced,” while the police start to arrest the group, one by one. Some of these protesters, such as Wendell Jones, are lifelong activists who continue to fight for the people of Los Angeles. Jones is currently a tenant rights attorney who facilitates weekly legal clinics for renters in LA.
The documentary shows how these organizers paved the way for future activists and people living with HIV. Many of these activists put their bodies on the line — they handcuffed themselves to buildings, broke windows and even burned the California flag, all to demand Los Angeles city officials listen to their needs and demands.
“We were fighting for scraps,” shared Spencer, who is also featured in the documentary. “We were doing the work. Back then we didn’t have diversity. We did not have opportunity; people didn’t approach us [for] our opinion.”
In October 1991 — only days after a major protest in Los Angeles — the LGBT community gathered in Sacramento to protest and march at the state capital. Norman was one of the people leading this effort. She called for Pete Wilson, who was governor of California at the time, to meet their demands.
“We have a message of love and power,” shares Norman in live footage of the rally in Sacramento. Norman is standing in front of the podium with a Keith Haring poster in the background as hundreds of people witness her speech.
Connie Norman also had the courage to speak her truth in front of a live television audience on Wally George’s notorious show. He was an American conservative talk show host, much like Bill O’Reilly today. In the documentary, the audience is full of conservative Americans who were against everything Norman stood for. At one point, a white man calls out Norman for ACT UP’s protest tactics, criticizing the fact that many of these protests involved vandalism of public property. Norman unapologetically shouts that it had been 25 years since the Stonewall riots and that her voice matters, even if that means breaking windows to get her point across.
Whether she was fighting for LGBT rights, or for the right to live with HIV, Norman stood her ground and left a mark for others to follow, such as her mentee Valerie Spencer. Spencer is now a therapist and recently ordained minister, and continues to mentor other trans women of color. She is grateful to Norman, and honors her with the work she does for the community.
“This film was a way of me hoping that I have done her proud,” said Spencer. “I hope I did something that was critical and important.”