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AIDS at 30 – David Reid on Transgender AIDS Diva Connie Norman

AIDS at 30 – David Reid on Transgender AIDS Diva Connie Norman

by Karen Ocamb on June 3, 2011

Transgender AIDS Diva Connie Norman kissed by Winston Wilde, author/AIDS activist Paul Monette's partner (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Connie Norman, AIDS Diva and Radio Star

By David Reid, producer of AIDS Watch

This is one of the most concise bios you can find on Connie Norman:

“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.” – Connie Norman

Born in Texas, Norman fled to Hollywood at the age of 14.  Having recovered from drug addiction, Norman underwent therapy and then a sex-change operation in 1976.  She began her political life as an AIDS and Queer activist with the Los Angeles chapter of ACT UP.  In 1991 she transformed the media landscape by becoming the first openly queer host of a commercial talk radio show.  “The Connie Norman Show” aired daily on XEK-AM where she was able to share her views on LGBTQ and human rights issues. In 1993 Norman became the first transgender Director of Public Policy at AIDS Service Center in Pasadena, a California non-profit agency.  Norman’s reach was broad, as she also co-hosted an LGBTQ Cable TV program and was a newspaper columnist for a San Diego publication.  Because of her unyielding activism, she was honored with awards from various groups including the City of Los Angeles, County of Los Angeles, California State Senate and California Assembly.  ACT UP/LA never gave an award or honor to anyone except Norman.  Just before her passing they made official her self-proclaimed status as “AIDS Diva”.  Her ashes were scattered on the lawn of the Clinton White House as part of the national ACT UP “Ashes Action” on October 13, 1996. Her legacy is sustained by Christopher Street West who established the Connie Norman Award to honor an individual or organization for outstanding achievement in fostering racial, ethnic, religious, and gender unity within the LGBT community.

It doesn’t do her justice, but in today’s short attention span world it covers the bases.

She was all this and more.  I first met Connie at ACT UP/LA.   It was 1987.

She had a mouth on her.  Thankfully it was connected to a mind.   And she was a she; on many occasions I heard her say, “I paid $50,000 to be who I am and I get to pick my pronouns.”  She picked her battles, too.

We first become closer when we spent the night together.

It was outside of County/USC hospital in downtown Los Angeles, a monolith you must see to believe.   The protest was aimed at the County Supervisors to designate more beds for AIDS patients.  There were ten beds quarantined for the purpose.  At the time there were over 6,000 known HIV+ cases.  ACT UP/LA organized a sleep-in.   It was a seminal bonding experience for the group.  And Connie and I became friends.  I didn’t know much about transgender then.   I knew Connie had started life physically as a male always knowing she should have been a female.    She made the surgical transition to become herself at the age of 27.

Connie Norman talks to passerby at ACT UP's protest outside the Reagan Library (phot by Karen Ocamb)

I often tried to imagine her as a gay boy growing up in Texas.

We were not good friends. Not yet. I was a little to mainstream gay for her.  I was on the Board of GLAAD/LA.   She was trying to shut down the FDA. I worked a job with a paycheck, she had the good fortune to fall in love with a man, Bruce Norman, who was able to support her full time activist work.  But circumstances would put us very close together.

A group in LA contracted with a Tijuana radio station (XEK-950 AM) to rent their signal and start a new talk station.  This was long before Glenn Beck. Rush Limbaugh was not a household name.   And the gentlemen that approached us were not pro-gay by any means, quite the contrary.  But they were sharp business people.  Well, enough that in a market where the FCC isn’t issuing new radio frequencies, they found a way to get a signal in this market.  And “The Connie Norman Show,” a title I had to argue with her to use, was born.  Arguing doesn’t begin to describe our conversations.   She wanted a different show name, something more for the community and all-inclusive.  I won.

So on November 25, 1991 “The Connie Norman Show” – the “first week-nightly Gay & Lesbian Talk Radio show in America” – went on the air.  (B, T  & Q had not joined the community alphabet yet.  A bit ironic considering).

I was asked to be the producer on the show by David M. Smith from the Gay & Lesbian Center, then a two story hodgepodge on Highland Avenue, south of Fountain.  Nothing like the buildings today.  David knew I had a background in radio and no one else in their right mind would tackle the task.   My “day job” allowed me a lot of free time to devote to the show.

Connie Norman interviews David M. Smith during her radio show's premier (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

We launched early that day, I’d say around 4p.m.   Lots of media, lots of hoopla. Then a snag, the phone lines for callers — it was, after all,  a call-in show, –weren’t working.   So Connie vamped and filled for half an hour with a few of the community dignitaries there for the event.   We decided to move the “live” show to the studios. That was 15 blocks and 15 floors away. It was my “driving” through the back streets of Hollywood that brought me a whole new level of respect from Connie.  We made it in mere minutes.  And we were off to the races.

Producer David Reid talks to Connie Norman about call-in difficulties (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

We took a roadshow version to San Diego. Mere miles from the Mexican border, the signal was very strong. We had a “live” four hour show.  A crowd turned out to watch.  Easily a hundred.  Seeing this reaction truly inspired Connie.  Radio is tough when you doubt if anybody is listening.

This turn out turned that tide.  And the volume of calls each night let us know it was working.  We were reaching.

Everybody wanted to use her momentum.  A big homophobe of the time, Wally George, had a local (albeit in the #1 television market in America) rant show on KDOC in Orange County.  He wanted Connie on his show.  We agreed – only if he would in turn do our show.  And if we got to bring half of the 50 or so in the studio audience he always had – usually a rag tag bunch of late teen/early 20’s thug types. His audience made Jerry Springer’s look like a Sunday social.   It was somewhat of a miracle a fight didn’t break out.

Connie Norman with radio ranter Wally George (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Our side held them at bay with wit and gay repartee.  Both Wally and Connie had to talk to the audience about fairness and civility before we went on. But it was quite the hour. Connie more than held her own.   And Wally George kept to his word and trekked up to Hollywood and did two hours of our three hour show.   He wanted to do all three but we thought better of it.   The only caveat was we would not discuss his daughter, actress Rebecca De Mornay. Connie agreed to this. When Mr. Blackwell guested he said he would walk out if we brought up his mother. But he did come out on the show – which surprised no one but it gave us a little more credibility.

We had volunteers help screen the callers – and we had callers.  We did not deny callers airtime, everyone was welcomed – but a lot of giggly teenagers would call or people wanting to talk off topic.  We had several great shows that sprang from these conversations.

We also had battles over radio fundamentals. Connie  often would refuse to identify herself or the show before the commercials breaks – much because she wanted to be different.  We were different enough: some radio basics still apply. And this was a commercial operation.  She was getting a paycheck.    So each break we segued with “You’re listening to ‘The Connie Norman Show,’ America’s only week-nightly Gay & Lesbian talk radio show.”

There were lots of highlights: callers that got through to her only to yell, “You fucking faggots will all burn in hell,” or some such diatribe.  And Connie would launch off on a tirade that was just poetry.

There was the night with Robin Tyler. The conversation went where for what reason I don’t recall now – but both women did the second hour of the show topless.   We had other transsexuals on the program.  And through these visits we learned that Southern California was a hub of post-op transsexuals – with a disproportional amount of transsexuals working in the aerospace industry.  Connie posited that people able to come to reason with themselves and realize nature made a slight mistake were of a mind strong and wise enough to work in such a field.

There was a double page ad that ran in The LA Times and the Wall Street Journal for BMX.  Big bucks. It showed the interior of the latest greatest Beemer with the radio station tuned into 950 AM.  Quite odd to have an AM station in the graphic.   We learned later this was not happenstance.  Just a couple of major ad execs that wanted to pay homage.

Connie Norman with her friend Harry Hay, co-founder of the Radical Faeries (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

We got calls from as far north as Shasta, yet couldn’t reach much of West Hollywood and Silverlake.   Radio signals on the AM dial, especially the ones coming from South of the border, take all sorts of bounces.  But we reached enough the phone lines were rarely open.  And many nights Connie would stay after signing off and talking to people struggling with the closet.   Or HIV.

The FCC was not pleased with this Mexican radio signal coming across the border illegally.  But there was little they could do.  Instead bad management took care of things for the feds.

Then the furniture started to disappear. Other hosts were being let go; repeats of our show played throughout the day. Connie’s paycheck bounced.  She wanted to walk. We kept on going despite her wanting to show them they couldn’t treat her that way. And then there was a sheriff’s lock put on the station doors.  This was on the 15th floor of the building at Sunset & Vine.   It wasn’t a shack in some warehouse district.

We tried to get another station to pick up the show. If the Internet had been viable then, we would have gone to a webcast.  Instead we just went off the air.  No fond farewells for the faithful.  No time to say goodbye.

Connie went on to continue the fight for HIV/AIDS drugs to be release.  People don’t realize the change AIDS brought to the way the FDA does business.  And drug trials. HIV patients demanded to be guinea pigs.   Many were in that fight, but Connie was near the front of the line.

Connie Norman with fellow ACT UP friend Mary Lucey, a lesbian with HIV (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

A now-closed HIV center at Cedars hospital was opened by AIDS Healthcare Foundation in her honor.

Connie was 47 when her t-cells dropped low enough that it was time to simply rest.  She was a resident/patient of the Chris Brownlee hospice.  She had fought the battle to take this old World War II facility and turn it into the haven of caring it be became. It’s not there anymore. The need has diminished.  But it was a remarkable place in a world that still treated people with HIV like pariahs.

Connie mentors AB 101 hunger striker and PWA Rob Roberts (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Connie spent most of her time those last few months thinking.  She tried hard not to get herself get riled up.   We spoke often about how shitty it was to end the radio show like it did, a whimper instead of a bang.  We certainly went into it with a bang.

Connie was a chimney.  She smoked a cigarette like it was an oxygen line.  During the radio days at every break she would hit the lobby and light one up.  Taking it down to the filter in less than the 3-minute commercial break.  Life in the hospice didn’t change that.

Connie Norman at AB 101 hunger strike site with hunger striker Rob Roberts (in red), former AIDS hunger striker Wayne Karr, and ACT UP friend Patt Riese (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Connie died.  And it was such a shock. If anybody was to rally back, we thought it would be Connie.  She was one of a kind.  She even found her husband, Bruce, a new lover to replace her.

Connie Norman is remembered and honored annually at the LA Pride Parade.   A transgender activist is honored in her memory.  As each year passes when I see the honoree ride down Santa Monica Boulevard, I can’t but help wondering if anybody in the crowd remembers who Connie was or has heard of her work.

The last time I interacted with Connie Norman was in October 1996.  Following a march from the U.S. Capitol to the fence around the White House – she and several other activists had their cremated remains thrown over the fence in protest. To the very end she made a difference.  Or tried to.  She never quit trying.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

djrootjr July 8, 2011 at 4:31 PM

Although I did not know Connie personally; I did have the opportunity to read some of her original writings in 2005. My late partner James Sherman worked for Bruce Norman at the time; in his drapery business.
When Bruce died on January 8, 2005 do to a subdoral hema-toma of the brain Jimmy and I were by his side the night before he died; and his family was trying to displace his then partner from their home; while helping to pack up the house I came across some of Connie’s original writings as well as the urn with the remainder of Connie’s ashes. Bruce kept them in his foyer as part of a shrine he had made to honor Connie. He always spoke highly of Connie; and would tell me I and all HIV+ people owed her a debt of gratitude. I never realized until recently how right he was. Thanks to Connie and many others who fought the fight early on; I will not have to suffer and die as horrible, demeaning and early death like my brother did in 1991.

Bruce was a good man with a good heart. My partner Jimmy died almost 5 months after Bruce on May 3, 2005. With no family or friends in California I came back east to New Jersey where not only I was from, but so was Jimmy. I do miss the time I spent with Bruce, Donnell (his partner), Pepper their pitbull and Bruce’s little dog who’s name escapes me and Jimmy in his house on Altedena Drive in Altedena Ca.

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Karenocamb July 8, 2011 at 4:44 PM

Thank you so much for your remembrance of Bruce. He was a terrific guy and what he and Connie had was very special. And it’s funny you mention the dogs – when I was at Connie and Bruce’s house in Altedena, the house was overrun with cats! Everywhere, cats. That was a very special time for me – as my visit turned into a lesson in LGBT history.  Connie was sick and had a very regal bed set up down stairs. Harry Hay was also visiting and when he found out I knew little about LGBT history – he delighted in filling me in for a couple of hours. Connie – who I’d met covering ACT UP/LA – also chimed in and gave me honest insights I could have never learned elsewhere.

Meanwhile Bruce was upstairs with his boyfriend – with Connie’s complete approval. I also knew Bruce through a 12 Step program and appreciated him as a truly genuine and kind person. 

Thanks for bringing them both back and for sharing your story, too.

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