Gloria Allen poses for a portrait in her Northalsted apartment on May 13, 2022. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

NORTHALSTED — Mama Gloria, a trailblazing Black transgender activist from Chicago who died in June, will be honored during a celebration of life happening next month at the Center on Halsted.

The event will give loved ones a space to share stories and pay respects to Gloria Allen, who was affectionately called “Mama Gloria” by the LGBTQ youth she mentored. It is 10-11:30 a.m. Oct. 6 — which would be Allen’s 77th birthday — at the Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted St.

“We’re creating a space for the LGBTQ community to say goodbye to Mama Gloria,” said Allen’s cousin, Gail Collier. “Gloria was much-loved in the LGBTQ community, so it’s a way of our family letting them know that we appreciate them for accepting her into their family.”

A still from the “Mama Gloria” documentary shows Gloria Allen talking to youth at the About Face Theatre. Credit: Provided

Allen, who was the subject of an award-winning documentary and a play about her charm school in which she mentored LGBTQ youth, died June 13 at her apartment in Lakeview.

Luchina Fisher, director, writer and producer of the “Mama Gloria” documentary, will speak at the ceremony, along with producer Zainab Ali and director of photography Stephen Lewis, Collier said.

The ceremony is being held at the Center on Halsted, Chicago’s largest LGBTQ community center, because that’s where Allen found her calling as a public speaker and mentor to younger LGBTQ people, Collier said.

Allen ran a “charm school” at the center where she met regularly with LGBTQ youth to teach them about manners, makeup, safe sex, dealing with abuse, how to take hormones and feel proud in their identities.

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 and cook for them.

“The youth gravitated toward her and had questions about her life experiences as a trans woman, and it was important for her to share both the joys but also the struggles of being a transgender woman,” Collier said. “And the Center on Halsted is where that all started for her. It’s where she found her true calling during her senior years.”

Gloria Allen, photographed in the 1970s. Credit: Provided

In an interview with Block Club shortly before her death, Allen discussed her upbringing, advocacy and legacy.

Allen was born Oct. 6, 1945, in Kentucky and grew up in Chicago’s Englewood, she said. She 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, she said.

Allen’s mother was a showgirl who used to dance with 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 LGBTQ 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.”

Allen said she created the charm school when she realized some of Chicago’s LGBTQ youth needed a teacher.

“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 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.”

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.

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