Gloria Allen, a trailblazing Black trans woman known affectionately as “Mama Gloria,” passed away on June 13 at the age of 76. Mama Gloria was a queer icon in Chicago, the proprietor of a charm school that took in many homeless trans people.
Through a mentorship program grounded in manners, Mama Gloria’s charm school covered matters of communication and presentation, helping trans people navigate sometimes hostile spaces. It also educated students on topics like healthcare, safety, and employment.
In her last recorded interview, Mama Gloria Allen spoke with The Advocate’s LGBTQ&A podcast about coming out in the pre-Stonewall era and her decision to open a charm school.
Allen grew up in a largely supportive household in Southside Chicago, with her grandmother making costumes for drag queens and showgirls. That isn’t to say that there were no obstacles to her coming out. Said Allen, “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.”
Learning that Chicago trans icon, “Mama” Gloria Allen, who has died peacefully in her sleep, according to a press statement.
Gloria lived nearly her entire life out, and shepherded generations of trans kids into the world.
— Kate Sosin (@shoeleatherkate) June 14, 2022
So sad to hear about the passing of Gloria Allen, Chicago trans pioneer, activist and cornerstone.
We owe Mama a mountain of respect. Watch “Mama Gloria,” now on @pbs. Share her story. And support local #trans women of color. Mama would thank you. 🏳️⚧️https://t.co/6yYWULwt6F pic.twitter.com/l5J7HIAe2o
— Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project (@WisLGBTQHistory) June 16, 2022
We are devastated to hear about the passing of #MamaGloria Allen, Chicago transgender icon and activist.
Gone but let’s ensure she is never forgotten.
Rest in power, Mama Gloria https://t.co/cHUbV9J8cG 💔🕯
— PFLAG National (@PFLAG) June 14, 2022
— Tre’vell Anderson (@TrevellAnderson) June 14, 2022
Today i have such a heavy heart, after the passing of Our very own Mama Gloria, i feel honored to have been able to write this song to honor her, now she sits amongst our ancestors and watches over us all, sending love and light to those who knew her best. pic.twitter.com/L3dgka3yDT
— Shea Diamond (@iamsheadiamond) June 14, 2022
Allen lived long enough to witness attitudes change with the times, and she always rolled with the punches. “For me coming up during [the Sixties], we were called, ‘Sissies,’” she said. “It didn’t bother me none. And then when they came up with the new term, ‘Transgender.’ …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.”
That wasn’t the only label that Allen had to grow comfortable with: she accepted being referred to as ‘Mama’ only after she realized the impact she’d had on other people’s lives. “At first, I didn’t like it,” she said. “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.”
Allen’s mentorship was inspired by the way other trans women had always looked out for her: “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.”
So why a charm school? Because manners can cut through discomfort and help to forge a relationship. Or, as Allen put it: “Manners are important to me. You have to know how to talk to a person, listen to them, and have fun with them.”
Of course, the charm school was not all about fun—it was about helping trans people be true to themselves. “I was always, ‘Speak out. Tell the truth,’” Allen said. “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.”
Mama Gloria Allen’s life and work was the subject of a recent documentary titled “Mama Gloria,” currently streaming on PBS.