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'The Lancet' medical journal Review of 'AIDS DIVA'

Title: "Connie Norman: A Warm Tribute to a Forgotten AIDS Activist" by Catherine Lucas, THE LANCET, Volume 8, Issue 11, November 2021


In January, 1989, a group of activists held a week long vigil at the USC County Hospital (Los Angeles, CA, USA)to expose inadequate care for AIDS victims and to call for a new dedicated unit. It was here that ACT UP/LA member Connie Norman did her first radio interview. “She was a natural”, says fellow activist and friend Peter Cashman. “And of course the rest is history.” Within a few years, Norman had become a leader in the movement, and a spokesperson on the intersectional oppressions experienced by the LGBTQ community. But in the intervening 25 years, this is a history that has largely been forgotten. A new film AIDS Diva: The Legend of Connie Norman by Dante Alencastre aims to revive it by introducing a new generation to this once iconic figure of the LGBTQ movement. By the end of 1990, in the USA, HIV/AIDS had become the leading cause of death for 25–44-year-olds and more than 100 000 people had died from the disease. This uncontrolled increase in infections and deaths came after a decade of indifference at the highest levels. “The government was not responding, and the churches, temples, and synagogues were not responding, and those in charge of our health-care industry were not responding”, says lawyer and activist John Duran. Instead, it was grassroots organizations that led the fight against discrimination and the call for more and better resources for AIDS victims. When there was progress (eg, FDA approval of zidovudine in 1987 and the AB101 anti-discrimination legislation in 1992) it was largely thanks to aggressive direct actions by organizations like ACT UP. Norman’s own wake-up call came when she tested positive for HIV. Born in Texas in 1949, she had left home at age 14 and made her way to California, finding sanctuary in San Francisco’s, and then Los Angeles’, queer scenes. She had had little formal schooling, but set about educating herself on what was happening to her community. “After I was diagnosed…I read everything I could get my hands on about AIDS”, she says. “After about 2 months it was real easy for me to make a decision that what was going on in our society was murder and genocide, and I needed to respond to that.” Norman already knew first-hand the brutality experienced by queer and trans communities. Assigned male at birth, she herself had undergone sex-reassignment surgery in the mid-1970s and used feminine pronouns (although she presented as neither strongly male nor female and later spoke of gender as a spectrum). Much of her work centered around combatting the double stigma experienced byLGBTQ people during this time, and the threat this posed to their health, housing, and work. At the heart of it was a simple message about a shared humanity: gender and sexuality mattered, but they needn’t. The picture of Norman that emerges from interviews, archive footage, and home videos is a person of warmth and spirit, with a wicked sense of humour. “Why is it that heterosexuals have lives, and gay and lesbians have lifestyles? I think it’s queer lives honey!” she quipped in her luxurious Southern drawl on her own cable chat show. At the same time she was capable of the kind of gravitas that inspired others to take action. “We’re in clear and present danger every moment that we do not fight back with everything we’ve got”, she wrote in 1993 in her regular column for LGBTQ magazine Update. By the mid-1990s, Norman was a well known LGBTQ figure, locally and nationally. Aside from her column and talk show, she also had a regular radio slot, had lectured on gender in the sociology department at UC Santa Barbara, and was influential in policy, sitting on the HIV Commission for Los Angeles. She worked tirelessly on improving the lives of LGBTQ people in the future, knowing she would not be around to witness it. Alencastre’s admiring portrait honours her as a changemaker and a model for proud trans visibility without whom we would not be where we are today. As Torie Osborn puts it, “it’s really important to recognize whose shoulders you stand on”. A few months before she died of AIDS-related complications in the summer of 1996, Norman appeared on prominent gay broadcaster Sheila Kuehl’s local cable show. Visibly thinner and breathless she spoke with more urgency than ever about gender and activism. But even with death staring her in the face, she still showed the same indomitable spirit that had made her such a beloved figure. “You’re also a person with AIDS”, prompts Kuehl. “Oh raging with AIDS my dear”, Norman replies with a smile. “The body is absolutely failing, but the spirit is soaring.”

Catherine Lucas ------

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