NORTHALSTED — When Don Bell met Gloria Allen, a transgender icon known to many as Mama Gloria, she was flanked by a group of younger, mostly Black, queer people at the Center on Halsted.
“They were attracted to her like a butterfly to a candle,” Bell recalled. “So one day, I went to introduce myself because I saw what she was doing. These poor kids were not being treated well — people had some pretty hostile attitudes about their presence on the strip — and Gloria was giving them the welcome that they deserve.”
This intergenerational connection Allen had with the queer youth at the Center on Halsted, an LGBTQ community hub at 3656 N. Halsted St., became the basis for her charm school, where she met regularly with queer youth to teach them about manners, makeup, safe sex, dealing with abuse, how to take proper hormones and how to feel proud in their identities, Bell said.
Some of Allen’s students were experiencing homelessness or didn’t know where their next meal would come from, so Allen would often wake up early to cook for them.
Allen, who was the subject of an award-winning documentary and a play about her charm school, died Monday at her apartment in Northalsted, Bell said. She was 76.
Allen is believed to have died in her sleep, said Luchina Fisher, director of the “Mama Gloria” documentary.
“I was blessed that she opened her heart and her life to me,” Fisher said. “We met when Gloria was looking for someone to help write her memoir, but I had a feeling that people really needed to see and hear from her, and I’m so glad we did the documentary because her voice lives on through the film.”
Block Club interviewed Allen in May about her upbringing, advocacy and legacy while preparing a profile of the trailblazing activist.
Allen was born Oct. 6, 1945 in Kentucky and grew up in Englewood, she said. Allen came out as transgender after high school and lived the rest of her life “out and proud” with the support of her family and community.
Allen’s mother was a showgirl who used to dance with other trans women, and her grandmother was a seamstress for drag queens and strippers, Fisher said. Both family members supported Allen after she came out, she said.
Allen’s mother, Alma, would often accompany Allen to the local ballroom scene, an underground subculture of mostly queer people of color throwing events that mix performance, dance, lip-syncing and modeling.
“I met so many wonderful people in the ballroom scene, and they were nice to me,” Allen said. “One year they said, ‘Bring your mother. We’d love to meet her.’ And so my mother came, she enjoyed herself and had a really great time.”
Allen said having her mother’s support was “wonderful.” Many transgender youth are ostracized or kicked out after coming out to their families, she said.
“But my mother was always supportive for me and always there for me, which I really appreciated,” Allen said. “I got the chance to really be myself, and I love it.”
Gail Collier, a cousin who grew up with Allen, said the family always accepted her even before she transitioned. Gloria was the oldest of eight siblings and would often babysit the four younger, female cousins, Collier said.
“Our parents would go out so we’d spend the night with Gloria, and she’d always dress up in my aunt’s clothes and do the Dance of the Seven Veils,” Collier said. “It was this dance from an old movie where they had all these long scarves that they’d be swinging around.”
The younger cousins would sit on the couch and “beg for her to dance for us,” Collier recalled.
“She’d be dancing all around the living room to entertain us,” Collier said. “Gloria was always a performer and she took very good care of us.”
Fisher said the support Allen received from her family was part of why she wanted to create the documentary about her.
“Gloria had the love and support of her mother and grandmother long before the Stonewall Riots [of 1969] and the word ‘trans’ existed,” Fisher said. “But she was proud and unapologetic about who she was, from the moment she came out of the womb, as she liked to say.”
Allen was also a “fierce advocate whose message was always love,” Fisher said.
Allen’s activism and charm school is also the subject of Philip Dawkins’ play “Charm,” which premiered at Steppenwolf in 2018.
Allen said she was inspired to start the charm school after interacting with some of the LGBTQ youth and realizing they needed mentorship.
“A lot of youth and younger trans people didn’t have a clue,” Allen said. “So I was striving to help them out, and in doing so, we helped each other out.”
Allen would teach the younger trans people what womanhood meant to her, and they would teach her about the younger generation and how the LGBTQ community was growing, she said.
“We joined forces, and it turned out to be a fine routine for us,” Allen said. “I wanted them to know what it meant to be female, and they were all for it, and I learned how to appreciate the younger generation even more.”
Bell and Allen bonded over a similar passion for building intergenerational bonds within the LGBTQ community, Bell said. He always admired Allen for the impact she had on young queer peoples’ lives.
“Gloria’s impact on youngsters was huge, and you’d hear them say it,” Bell said. “She was the difference between them, particularly trans youth of color, and suicide.”
“Gloria becoming involved with the community center and starting the charm school was just part of her personality,” Collier said. “She’s always had a nurturing spirit and been a sort of caregiver.”
Allen was “a force of nature” who “always carried herself with such dignity and assuredness,” Bell said.
“Gloria wasn’t loud or confrontational, but she was a true example of the survivalist nature of the African American community, women in particular, and she lived her life with purpose,” Bell said.
Renee Greenwood, another cousin, said Allen was “very daring” and “always game for excitement.”
When Greenwood lived in Hawaii, Allen visited and stayed with her in Honolulu, where she “took the island by storm,” Greenwood said.
“Honolulu has a very large and accepting LGBTQ community, and Gloria has always been very real with people, so she had no problem fitting in,” Greenwood said. “She had the time of her life.”
The biggest lesson Allen wanted people to take away from her story and charm school was the joys of being transgender, she said in May.
“Being trans is so much fun, and we have a lot to offer,” Allen said. “Life is full of fun, and I stick with it.”
Jake Wittich is a Report for America corps member covering Lakeview, Lincoln Park and LGBTQ communities across the city for Block Club Chicago.