Director: Dante Alencastre
At only 60 minutes, AIDS Diva: The Legend of Connie Norman is the shortest feature playing at this year’s BFI Flare Film Festival, but it certainly is the most powerful. For us in the UK, Connie Norman is an unfamiliar name in LGBTQ+ history, but this enlightening documentary ensures that her name will never be forgotten.
When looking back to the 1980s and 90s and the fight against AIDS, historians have often focused on the marches and protests that occurred in either New York or Washington, but in telling Connie Norman’s story, director Dante Alencastre also charts California’s AIDS activism. It was at a vigil in Los Angeles, outside a hospital that desperately needed more beds to treat those with HIV/AIDS, when Norman suddenly found herself appointed one of the leaders of the queer community fighting for its rights.
As a transgender woman – she often used the term transsexual – she felt distant from the gay and lesbian community until she moved to San Francisco where she felt a sense of belonging and community. Working in the legendary nightclub Trocadero, Norman felt at home in a society that celebrated its differences and diversity. It was a community worth fighting for.
Even though she was an accidental leader in groups such as ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power), she soon became proficient in public speaking and diplomacy. She read books and newspapers to make sure that she had the right language to talk to lawyers and health officials and enough rhetoric to rally her fellow activists. Her studying paid off, and the clips of her shouting through loudspeakers and down microphones on the steps of various federal buildings are stirring stuff, especially when you realise that, as a person with HIV, this is also a personal battle for life and death.
She may have been straight-talking, but she was compassionate too, and her natural manner led to her having her own radio programmes and TV shows on cable. She could charm anyone, even Republicans. Extracts from interviews easily demonstrate her passion and articulacy, and also a sense of humour, which must have helped her get through some of the bad times when governments, both state and federal, refused to help those living and dying with AIDS. ‘Why is it,’ she quips, ‘that heterosexual people have lives, while gay man and lesbians have lifestyles?’ A question that could easily be asked today.
With today’s discourse on the fluidity of gender, it’s easy to forget that people in the 80s and 90s also argued that, rather than gender being a simple binary, gender was on a spectrum. Norman speaks eloquently on the subject and influenced by Harry Hay and the Radical Faeries, she became very interested in the Native American concept of the Berdache, a two-spirit person who has both female and male identities. This perhaps explains why she didn’t feel entirely satisfied after her transition, a subject also discussed in Colors of Tobi, a documentary from Hungary also screening at this year’s Flare, and which could almost be seen as a companion piece to AIDS Diva.
Alencastre has found such good footage of Norman, and of the protests that it’s a shame when this documentary ends, but it’s an excellent hagiography of a true revolutionary. As one of her friends proclaims it’s down to Connie that queer activists are now such kick-ass bitches!
BFI Flare runs here from 17 March to 28 March 2021