There’s a natural human tendency to simplify complex situations by focusing on just a few people in order to create a story that’s easy to remember and repeat. For this reason, history is often taught through the “Great Man” approach, which ignores the work of the many people that was necessary for the chosen man (or, more rarely, woman) to be great. The problem is that a lot gets left out in this simplification process, and the stories of the many people who contributed to a result without being chosen as The One Who Did It can be as forgotten as if they never happened. This method of writing history also creates a false understanding of how real, hard change comes about in any society—by the hard work of a lot of people, not through the genius of one sanctified leader.
One person’s whose story deserves amplification is that of Connie Norman, a California-based activist whose life and activism is ably documented in Dante Alencastre’s AIDS Diva: The Legend of Connie Norman. Norman led an eventful life—she left her home in Texas at age 14, had gender reassignment surgery at age 27, tested positive for HIV in 1987, and died in 1996, age 47. Her diagnosis came during the Reagan years, when a lot of American politicians preferred to ignore AIDS or score political points by condemning those who became infected. It was also a time when some healthcare workers refused to treat AIDS patients, whether due to personal prejudice or out of fear of becoming infected themselves, at a time when the disease was not well understood.
Norman was having none of that. She worked with ACT UP and the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and was more than ready to call out politicians for their indifference toward the gay community. It helped that she had a gift for turning a phrase, once wondering “Why is it heterosexual people have lives and gay and lesbians have lifestyles?” Norman was also unapologetic about her identity as a transsexual, her HIV status, and her past, which included periods spent as a sex worker and a drug addict: “I did it, I got it, I’m dealing with it.”
One lesson of AIDS Diva is that you don’t get anything if you let the enemy dictate the terms of engagement. Another is that just because you’re gay doesn’t mean you will feel at home in every gay community (any more than every straight person feels at home in every straight community), so it’s up to you to find the place where you fit.
Trans people like Norman did not always feel welcome in the broader gay community, despite the key role they played in the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot and the Stonewall Riots, which together are often credited as the beginning of the modern gay liberation movement. Norman felt so alienated in post-Stonewall New York, in fact, that she said she “had pretty much given up on the gay and lesbian community”—then she moved to San Francisco, where she found “the most outrageous experience of queerness I’ve ever encountered in my life” and knew she’d found her home in California. The rest, as they say, is history. | Sarah Boslaugh
AIDS Diva: The Legend of Connie Norman is available for home viewing from Oct. 15 through October 26 through NewFest 2021, and will also have an in-person screening at the LGBT Community Center in New York City on Oct. 17. Further information about tickets, passes, forms of access, and the complete film lineup is available from the NewFest2021 web site.