On what would have been her 77th birthday, friends, family, and community advocates gathered in October to celebrate the late “Mama” Gloria Allen, whose long life linked the present to queer history, and who used her stunning success at self-realization to improve the lives of others like her.
Born in 1945 and identifying as female from her young childhood, Allen had the mind-blowing luck to be born to a Jet magazine centerfold and Bronzeville nightclub showgirl, and a grandmother who made outfits for the scene’s strippers and legendary female impersonators. She passed in high school and transitioned in her mid-20s, working as an X-ray technician, clerk, and caregiver for the sick and aged.
Allen was a quintessential Chicagoan, a lady from the south side who loved wearing furs, heels, and jewelry, and whose biggest claim to fame was her establishment in her later years of an old-fashioned charm school for young homeless transgender people at the Center on Halsted, which hosted her October memorial. That five-year and self-funded effort inspired a play, Charm, that opened at Steppenwolf in 2015 and moved off-Broadway in 2017. A documentary about her, Mama Gloria, premiered in 2020.
The trans rights pioneer died last June in her home in the Town Hall Apartments for LGBTQ+ elders on Halsted Street in Lakeview East.
“The most important thing that I want to say is well done, Gloria. This was a life well lived,” said Don Bell, her across-the-hall neighbor. “Let’s not mourn because she’s gone; let’s celebrate because she was here with all of us.”
Allen was phenomenal and exceptional, Bell said, pointing to her achievement of a full life expectancy despite the horrific rates of homicide that Black trans women endure. “She maintained an intimate and direct relationship with her family of origin, unlike most of us in the LGBT community who are estranged from our families,” he said. “She died quietly in her own home in her own bed—in peace, rather than as a victim of violence. Well done, Gloria Allen.”
Family members recalled her with warmth and love, from fighting off her childhood bullies to introducing her to significant others after her transition, to receiving a warm welcome as a septuagenarian at her Englewood High School alumni group.
“She was born in a time when it was very difficult to acknowledge yourself, as you say now, as an LGBTQ person without all the ridicule, harm, and misjudgment that went along with it,” Allen’s cousin, Gail Collier, said at the event at the Center on Halsted. “Gloria was in that era, and during that time that we grew up and I look back over her life, no matter what, she was just bubbling and beautiful.”
“When she stepped outside those doors of her home, she was a proud gay person—and I say that at that time to no disrespect to the community now in its latest style,” Collier continued. “She wore being a sissy as a badge of honor. When she transitioned into Gloria as a full physical transgender human being, she wore that even bolder, beautifully, and brightly.”
Allen’s nephew, Dr. Benton Johnson II, called her life one of toil for trans lives that matter.
“She had pain, she had struggles, she had triumphs and successes, and she had failures. But through it all she was compelled to work for others,” he said. “For five years, she paused to make others great. It was the way that she worked. Her way was charitable, and she gave.”
Like many LGBTQ+ south siders, Allen moved to the north side to be with her family of choice, as Bell said in an interview. He noted again that her own family supported her through the move.
“She didn’t have to make a dichotomy between the two, because her family of origin supported her in being an active part of her family of choice,” he continued. “She had the best of both worlds.”
“She was one of the persons who defined ‘up here,’ who defined the neighborhood. She was one of the advantages of the neighborhood. And what she did was, she worked with the ‘ugly issues’ that people don’t want to talk about, like the lack of welcome of people of color to this neighborhood, the lack of welcome to young trans kids and young kids of color who came from other parts of the city,” Bell said
That issue has been one of contention in the, for better or worse, center of Chicago’s LGBTQ+ life for decades. More than three-quarters of Lakeview’s population is white. Drexel University Sociologist Jay Orne detailed white neighborhood residents’ organized opposition to “gay kids on the street” (in the words of the residents) in the 2011 ethnography Boystown. It is not uncommon for residents to call police on rowdy young Black queer people, who may come to the neighborhood for the safety and security (corporeal as well as spiritual) the area offers LGBTQ+ people who want to live openly.
Allen’s claim to fame might be her charm school for trans youth, but Bell said she had a “special mission with youngsters of color, with young Black kids and young Brown kids who came from other sections of the city and were not welcomed by people who live here.”
“Gloria interceded in the interest of those children with security here at the center, with people who were not welcoming here at the center, and she became a place where they could find shelter and love,” he added.
The pair actually met at the center, when Allen spoke out against security profiling Black teenagers and white bystanders commenting they should not have been there. (In 2020, the center fired its security firm owned by a police officer accused of an off-duty 2013 racist attack against a Black security guard outside a gay bar and hired a Black-owned firm to replace it.)
“She and I were sitting at a table together, and Gloria was the only one inviting the kids over, because we would intercede on behalf of those kids, because the situation did not respect our relationship with the kids of color,” Bell, himself a Black native south sider, said.
“The thing is, this is what we experienced over the years, too. My experiences go back 30 or 40 years across Halsted Street with the same kind of thing happening. I empathize with the kids, and so I interceded and Gloria interceded so we could protect them against the martial forces of security or having the police called, and also the unwelcoming attitudes of others who are here. If this is supposed to be Chicago’s LGBT center, it includes everybody,” said Bell.
Center on Halsted representatives sang Allen’s praises at the celebration; her name will soon be etched into one of its windows as a permanent tribute. Illinois House of Representatives Majority Leader Greg Harris read a proclamation the legislature passed in the trailblazer’s honor and recalled his memories of her in the clubs and bars as a gay youth and during his early activism in the 1980s.
The highest-ranking gay elected official in Illinois history empathized with Allen’s childhood, recalling his own itinerant one in small towns outside of Air Force bases, where he was picked on for being a “sissy.”
That changed in the 1970s, when he got a job in Chicago after college. “The first thing we did is we found the clubs,” he said, and Allen was there. Twenty years later, she was there at protests and actions around the AIDS pandemic.
“All those decades that Mama Gloria was out there in the streets and organizing and taking care of kids and showing them love and their worth, and bringing along the next set of leaders who are around today, and you understand the courage and the strength and the power of a woman like that,” Harris said.
The celebration of life ended, appropriately, with everyone gathered singing the refrain from Stevie Wonder’s 1980 song “Happy Birthday.”
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