Community Histories

Mama Gloria: Daughter, Sister, Cousin, Friend, LGBTQIA+ Activist

By: Gregory Storms
Mar 22 2024

CHM senior public and community engagement manager Gregory Storms recalls the life of Mama Gloria Allen, an African American transgender activist, and her impact on Chicago’s LGBTQIA+ community.

In late 2011, I moved to Chicago to research segments of the city’s LGBTQIA+ community and its history. Soon after I moved here, I was connected to Center on Halsted, the Midwest’s largest LGBTQIA+ community center, which is located in the Lakeview community area. A couple years later, I found myself working there overseeing Youth Services and engaging LGBTQIA+ young folk, especially those experiencing homelessness. Unsurprisingly, a disproportionate number of those individuals are gender expansive, nonbinary, and/or transgender. It was also during this time that I met Gloria Allen, affectionately known to everyone around her as “Mama Gloria.”

Gloria Allen, c. 2022. Image from Wikimedia.

Mama Gloria was an African American transgender woman who left an indelible mark on our community. I first heard about her and her “Charm School” through Youth Services staff before meeting her in person.

Center on Addison at 806 N. Addison St. (left) is part of Center on Halsted, serving as a space for Senior Services programming for LGBTQIA+ older adults. It is connected to Town Hall Apartments (center background), a senior living facility where Gloria Allen lived in her later years. 

Charm School was a workshop Mama Gloria offered primarily to young folks of transgender experience as a sort of lesson in etiquette. As she said, “Manners are important to me. You have to know how to talk to a person, listen to them, and have fun with them.” But these lessons weren’t really about etiquette alone. They were an opportunity to forge new intergenerational relationships, to offer these young people a role model, an elder to whom they could look with respect. This was especially important given how few elder transgender role models are still with us today. As Mama Gloria herself would often recount, transgender women were “either beaten or murdered,” something that many younger transgender people today think will happen to themselves, too.

Center on Addison was formerly the Chicago Police Department Town Hall station in Lakeview, one of many locations in Chicago where LGBTQIA+ folks were incarcerated in earlier decades, making its transformation into a LGBTQIA+ senior living center an important symbolic victory for the community.

These young folks were able to benefit from Gloria’s long and full life. Born October 6, 1945, in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and raised in Chicago, she was fortunate to have a supportive family. Her mother, Alma Dixon, was a source of lifelong support and affirmation. Her maternal grandmother, Mildred, was also pivotal in Gloria’s life. Both women worked in and around the entertainment industry. Alma was a showgirl and Jet magazine centerfold; Mildred was a seamstress who often did work for drag queens and male strippers during Gloria’s youth. Both knew transgender women through their work before the word transgender was even coined decades later. (For example, Merriam-Webster Dictionary states the first known use of “transgender” was in 1974.) Other members of her extended family also supported her transition and remained close throughout her life.

Gloria Allen, c. 1970. Image from Block Club Chicago

Still, even with family support, Mama Gloria faced a number of life challenges as an African American transgender woman growing up in the mid-twentieth century. Facing hate-motivated violence and harassment, domestic violence, barriers to educational and employment opportunities, and a gradually developing system to support social and medical transition, Gloria Allen was confronted with significant challenges. Despite these challenges, however, she lived her life the way she wanted and became a beloved member of Chicago’s LGBTQIA+ community.

Her Charm School gained journalistic attention, which later led to new opportunities like a theatrical play by Philip Dawkins, Charm, based on her life. She was recognized by transgender writer and activist Janet Mock at the Trans 100 Awards in 2014 and was the subject of a 2020 documentary about her life called Mama Gloria.

The cover of Mama Gloria. The film was nominated for a 2022 GLAAD Media Award.

Sadly, Gloria Allen died on June 13, 2022, at the age of 76. I clearly remember learning of her death from friends and colleagues. It was a loss to the entire community, but her memory lives on in the lives of the young folks who were fortunate enough to know, learn from, and love her like the chosen mother that she was.

Additional Resources

Translate »