Long before the Stonewall rebellion launched the modern LGBTQ rights movement in 1969, Gloria Allen was out and proud, immersing herself in ballroom culture while attending weekend drag events on Chicago’s South Side.

“When I came out of my mother’s womb I was out,” she liked to say. “The only time I entered a closet was to get me an outfit and a pair of pumps.”

Allen, a Black transgender woman, grew to become a beloved elder of Chicago’s LGBTQ community, known for offering guidance and support to younger generations of trans people, many of whom were Black or Hispanic.

By 2012, she had started running a charm school for transgender youths, providing lessons in etiquette and comportment while instilling confidence and strength in her students. Her pupils – many of whom were homeless or at-risk – called her “Mama Gloria” or simply “Mama.”

“I cooked for them, listened to them and taught them etiquette. I thought of them as my chosen children,” she told People magazine last year.

Based out of the Center on Halsted, an LGBTQ community center in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago, Allen’s school lasted only a few years – she was not paid, and she often used her own money to prepare students’ meals – but inspired a hit play, “Charm,” by Philip Dawkins. It was also chronicled in a 2020 documentary about her life, “Mama Gloria.”


“It was hard to go places with Gloria, because she was a celebrity,” Dawkins said in a phone interview, recalling their friendship in Chicago. “Everyone actually felt like they knew her. We couldn’t walk down the street, people were always coming up to get a hug or give a life update.

“After they left, she would look at me and say, ‘That’s my child.’ She was the mother of queer Chicago.”

Allen was 76 when she died June 13 at her home in Lakeview, where she lived in an apartment complex for LGBTQ seniors. The cause was respiratory failure, said her friend Luchina Fisher, the writer and director of “Mama Gloria.”

The idea for a transgender charm school emerged out of Allen’s time at the Center on Halsted, where she met teenagers who were loud and, as she told it, a little rude, with an approach to fashion and etiquette that was far different from someone who had been taught to wear gloves and a fancy hat for formal occasions.

“I may be sounding old-fashioned, but I would see these young people wearing negligee-type clothes on the street and I would say, ‘How could they leave the house looking like that?’ ” she said in a 2012 interview with Chicago Tribune columnist Dawn Turner.

While Allen could have come across as patronizing and condescending, her pupils “heard her in a way that didn’t sound critical,” said Fisher. “It sounded like, ‘Oh, here’s somebody who actually cares about us, who sees us and wants to help.’ ”


“At that point in time, there was some trans visibility, but there was still a lot of misinformation, a lot of hate,” Fisher added. “And here was Gloria, first of all an elder, which many young trans people hadn’t seen or experienced before, reaching out to them and offering her time and her experience and her heart. She heard what was on their minds. She heard what had happened to them. And she said, ‘You’re important, and I see you and I love you, and I want you to succeed.’ ”

Meeting with her students once or twice a week, Allen would teach them how to apply makeup and artfully hold a conversation. She also spoke about safe sex practices and domestic abuse, drawing on her own experiences, and checked in on those who were preparing to undergo gender-affirming surgery, as she had in her 30s.

Through her lessons on table manners and etiquette, Allen “became the Emily Post of Halsted Street,” as Tribune theater critic Chris Jones wrote in 2015, reviewing the premiere of “Charm” at Steppenwolf in Chicago. The play was inspired by six months that Dawkins spent sitting in on Allen’s classes and was later mounted in cities including Washington and New York, where it ran off-Broadway in 2017.

The show and subsequent documentary helped bring wider attention to Allen, who received the 2014 Living Legend Award at the Trans 100, a celebration of transgender advocacy. Last year, she was honored by SAGE, an advocacy group for LGBTQ elders, with the Carmen Vázquez Award for Excellence in Leadership on Aging Issues.

Allen was also cited by President Biden at a White House ceremony two days after her death. Before signing an executive order intended to protect LGBTQ Americans, he mentioned Allen alongside fellow activist Urvashi Vaid as someone “who paved the way for us” in the battle for equality.

“I feel so blessed because I never thought I would make it to the age of 30,” Allen told the Tribune last year. “I never thought that, because I had been in so many bad relationships where I was beaten up. It was rough.”


“I’m not going to go through life hating people for what they did to me,” she added. “I’m not gonna let that happen, and I overcame it. Besides, all I want to do is put on a beautiful dress and a pair of hot pumps and go on about my business and travel.”

The oldest of eight siblings, Allen was born in Bowling Green, Ky., on Oct. 6, 1945, and grew up in the Bronzeville section of Chicago. Her parents were not married, and she had little relationship to her biological father. Her mother was a showgirl and a model who was photographed for Jet magazine and married a factory worker the year Allen turned 2.

Decades before institutions like the Center on Halsted started offering resources for young people coming out as transgender, Allen found support from her mother, who instructed Allen’s siblings to call her “sister,” not “brother.”

“The men in my family, they were sort of apprehensive about me, but the women were strong,” she said in a 2016 interview for Jess Dugan and Vanessa Fabbre’s book “To Survive on This Shore,” a collection of photographs and interviews with older transgender people. “They wore the pants in my family. My mother would tell them, ‘This is your child, this is our baby, and you’re going to love my baby because you love me.’ And that’s the way it was.”

She was also backed by her great-aunt, who introduced her to the fundamentals of etiquette, and her maternal grandmother, a seamstress who made gowns for drag queens and dancers.

Together, the three women gave her fashion tips and makeup advice. “Before I left the house, I had to model my outfit for these women,” she told the Tribune. “If I didn’t look right, they’d stop me. They’d say, ‘Sister, you can’t wear that.’ ”


Before she discovered the city’s ballroom community, Allen found far less support outside the home. “People looked at me like I was just nothing,” she recalled, “and they treated me like I was nothing.”

Allen was sexually assaulted while in high school and took a year off before returning to earn her diploma. She later had a 10-year relationship with a partner who was abusive, according to Fisher. In a phone interview, she said Allen pulled a .22-caliber handgun from her purse one day and shot her partner on the Dan Ryan Expressway. He survived – they broke up – and never told the authorities how he had been wounded.

Survivors include four brothers and a sister.

Allen worked for many years as a licensed practical nurse at the University of Chicago Medical Center (for a time, she also tried to launch a music career as a singer), and she was a private nurse’s aide before starting her charm school.

One of her lessons to students was straightforward, if not always easy: Be yourself.

“If you’re yourself,” she said in the docuseries “Been T/Here,” released by the Chicago nonprofit OTV/Open Television, “people will learn how to love you.”

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