Gloria Allen, a legend in Chicago's trans community, passed away on Monday, June 13. She was 76 and made a name for herself running a charm school for LGBTQ+ youth in Chicago, many of whom lived on the street.
"Manners are important to me. You have to know how to talk to a person, listen to them, and have fun with them," Allen said, but this wasn't an ordinary charm school. She took them under her wing, acting as a mentor to them in almost every aspect of their lives and quickly earned the nickname "Mama Gloria."
"At first, I didn't like it. I just didn't like being called nobody's mom. I ain't got no babies and that's the way I would think," she said. "And then I thought about it. I said, You know what? There's nothing wrong with being called Mama Gloria because I am their mother. I am their mother. They pick up a lot of the things from me."
Allen is the subject of the GLAAD Award-nominated documentary, Mama Gloria (now streaming on PBS). Directed by Luchina Fisher, the film is an essential record of trans history, a time capsule documenting Gloria's journey from the South Side of Chicago where she declared her trans identity in the 1960s, and all the way to Off-Broadway where Charm premiered in 2017, a play inspired by Allen's life and the impact she had on the LGBTQ+ community in Chicago.
In one of her final interviews, recorded last month, Allen spoke with the LGBTQ&A podcast about how much the trans experience has changed since she came out in the 1960s, why her family's support was so transformational in her life, and the extraordinary impact of her charm school.
You can listen to the full interview with Gloria Allen on Apple Podcasts or read excerpts below.
Jeffrey Masters: At the charm school, you were a mentor figure for queer and trans kids in Chicago. Who was that mentor figure for you in your own life?
Gloria Allen: For me, it was my mother. My mother was always there for me. And if I had something to do, I would consider talking to her about it. And she would give me her opinion and I would take it from there.
I am so fortunate that she was here for me. Now, she's gone and I have to do things on my own.
JM: And growing up, your grandmother made costumes for showgirls and drag queens.
GA: Yeah. I think about her sometimes and I just laugh at things she would help me to do or say. She would help me with everything, clothing, what to put on, what not to wear. She was very supportive of me. And my mother was another one who was supportive and stood by me through thick and thin. And so these two particular women I was just blessed to have.
JM: Since your grandma made costumes for drag queens and they were around the house, did you grow up being surrounded by queerness?
GA: Well I was always queer in the first place. But having these people around me, I was just so...how would I put it? I was just so overcome by them. They were supportive and helpful towards me and helped me, they would watch me. And if I was doing something wrong, walking the wrong way or talking to somebody, they would tell me, "No, don't do that. Be careful."
JM: Did these people sit you down and ever explain how much violence trans women can experience?
GA: No, they didn't. They just told me to be careful, surround myself with wonderful people.
I came up in a rough area and I got a chance to put myself out there. But I knew right from wrong and I had people who would help me. And if I had any problems, I could talk to them about it and then they would tell me, "No, don't do that. Be careful of that person."
JM: You started to explore your womanhood in the beginning of the sixties before words like trans or transgender were widely used. How were you describing yourself at taht time?
GA: For me coming up during that time back then, we were called, "Sissies." It didn't bother me none. And then when they came up with the new term, "Transgender," I didn't know what that was. I asked some of my friends and they were out there and they said, "Oh, that's the new term that they call us." And I said, "Well I really don't like it because it sounds like something from a tree limb or something." But, I dealt with it.
JM: For a while, you were dressing and presenting very femme on the weekends only. When did you realize that this was who you were, that this was more than just a weekend thing?
GA: Yeah. I was dressing, putting on my mother's clothes. She didn't know who was doing it. And then I got into the point that "Okay, I like this, I like doing this." I kept on doing it until I got into the root of it and I stayed in it. I always would be out there, but I would be with the older people. It was fun because I learned a lot from them.
Back then, the trans girls were more committed to each other, helping them out, showing them the things that they need to know. I picked up from that and I learned a lot from the older generation, how to dress, how to socialize with them. And it helped me to get through the hard times that I didn't know existed, but it did. It was a fun thing for me. They watched over me because I always kept myself around them.
JM: You are 76 now. For these older trans women you're talking about, were any of them in their 70s like you are now?
GA: I don't know. I know a lot of girls were 40, 50 and 60, but I don't know about my age. I don't know anybody my age.
JM: You said that trans women were more "committed to each other" back then. Do you think they don't support each other in the same way now?
GA: No, they don't. A lot of the trans girls, older trans girls, that are up in my age, they disappear. I don't understand that. A lot of them are dead, yes. A lot of them are still around, but they don't be out there like they used to be. And I'm that way too. I don't go to nightclubs, I don't do that anymore.
JM: You became a nurse in the late '60s. Were you still working when the AIDS crisis began in Chicago?
GA: I was a part of it. Yes, I was in that. I had a little group that were social workers and secretaries and everything. A lot of them were trans people, but they didn't recognize that. They stayed to themselves, but they kept up with me. And a lot of those people that were out there, they're gone now. It's scary, but I learned how to cope with it.
JM: What's scary?
GA: The people that left me. They're gone and I didn't know where they were. And when I did find out about them, they were dead and gone.
JM: Who do you have from the '60s and '70s who are still around today?
GA: No, all my friends, they're gone because I didn't come up north until the '70s. And when I would come up, I would stay up in the area, Boys Town, for a little while. Then I'd go back south back home. I lived on the South Side of Chicago, but I would come north. It was fun. It was fun for me.
JM: How open and accepting was Boystown for trans people?
GA: For trans people, Black trans people, it was horrible. They didn't like us. And we would come up on the weekends from Friday night until Sunday night and go back to the South Side. They just wouldn't let us into the clubs. The Blacks that were up here, they acted different to us. They didn't communicate with us or try. This went on for about a couple of years. And then finally, I got into it, met friends up here. We became friendly and would have a great time.
JM: The charm school you eventually opened focussed on more than just manners. Can you talk about what you taught there?
GA: Well, I've always read about charm and listened to what you're supposed to do and the things that you don't do. I was just a charming person. You have to have manners. And when you push yourself into that realm of having good manners, that was charming.
Manners are important to me. You have to know how to talk to a person, listen to them, and have fun with them.
JM: At the charm school, you were a resource for young trans kids to also talk about things like healthcare, how to come out at work, things like that.
GA: And that was a hard thing to do, but I got through it. I was always, "Speak out. Tell the truth."
A lot of people weren't open. They were afraid to say what they were and what they were doing. And I was the one who would open up and talk about it. "Let's talk about it. This is the way I think it should be. And if you don't like it, you don't like it." And that was the thing with me, they would always question me about charm. For me, I learned it from home being charming, delightful. I picked that up at a home and I said, "Well since you want to be this way, get out there and meet people, greet people, have fun with them and talk with them."
And some of them listened and some of them didn't, but I had a good time.
JM: When was the first time someone called you Mama Gloria?
GA: Oh, that came from charm school. At first, I didn't like it. I just didn't like being called nobody's mom. I ain't got no babies, and that's the way I would think. And then I thought about it. I said, "You know what? There's nothing wrong with being called Mama Gloria because I am their mother." I am their mother. They pick up a lot of the things from me.
JM: What is the community like in the building where you live? It's all LGBTQ+ seniors.
GA: Well, I've been in a nursing home before I came here and the nursing home, it wasn't what I thought it would be. It was not friendly. People were nosy, wanted to know, "How and why are you here?" And I didn't like that. I didn't like that question at all. I'm here just like you're here. I have to live my life. You choose the way you want to live and I'll choose the way I want to live. So they looked up to me because I would really come out and talk about it. I wasn't the one that kept quiet.
My mother and father, at first they said, "You will change." And I said to myself, "No, I'm not going change. I don't expect to change." My family finally took a liking to me and told me, "Don't ever change." And I've been that way ever since, ever since I can remember.
JM: How do you think that has to do with your grandma's profession and you have queerness and gender nonconformity in your home?
GA: It was always strange to me because my mother knew a lot of trans people. They were friendly toward her. She always greeted everybody and she never had a problem with them. So I think I picked it up from my mother being that way.
They would always tell her, "That child of yours," George was my name that I got at birth and I never did like that name, but I had to use it. They would always tell her, "Well, George is so gracious and so wonderful and you should realize that." And my mother said she knew and she knew the hard times that were out there for me, but she told me, "If you have any problem, you can come to me." And I did and I learned so much from that.
Click here to listen to the full interview with Gloria Allen.
LGBTQ&A is The Advocate's weekly interview podcast hosted by Jeffrey Masters. Past guests include Pete Buttigieg, Laverne Cox, Brandi Carlile, Billie Jean King, and Alok Vaid-Menon.
New episodes come out every Tuesday.