The last time I’d written about Gloria Allen was when a story broke about her facing off a transphobic attacker at her seniors apartment complex in Chicago and I pointed out we need to start thinking about trans senior issuesas well.
Gloria is back in the news, and not only does it tell some of her fascinating story, ‘Mama Gloria’ as she’s called is teaching a charm school for trans youth at the Center on Halsted.
She one of our pioneering African-American transwomen whose story I wish I’d gotten to know when I was a trans teen much less had that kind of guidance when I finally did transition.
Here’s the Chicago Tribune story by Dawn Turner Trice
Handing down lessons learned on her journey
Transgender senior teaches tricks of the trade to a new generation at LGBT charm school
About a year ago, a retired Gloria Allen thought having lunch at the
Center on Halsted with other lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender
senior citizens was simply one of the highlights of her week.
But while at the center, which offers an array of youth services for the
LGBT community, Allen, 66, noticed that some of the young people
arrived dressed inappropriately. Young men wore scandalously short
shorts; young women sported baggy pants that sagged way below their
Some of the teens also didn’t comport themselves very well.
So Allen, a transgender woman, got permission from the center to start a
charm school. Allen, who’s called “Mama Gloria,” teaches youth
etiquette along with how to dress and carry themselves — things they
might have ordinarily learned at home if their parents understood how to
guide their LGBT teens and were supportive enough to do so.
“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?'” Allen said.
She said she felt strongly about helping because she understands how
difficult it can be when a person has been socialized to be one gender
but feels as though he or she is another. Also, she said she believes
they have to set a good example.
“When you’re a part of a minority community, what you do reflects the
whole,” she said. “It may not be fair, but that’s reality. There are
children out on the street. I don’t want kids to say, ‘Look Mom, look at
that.’ I don’t want people to look at us like that.”
Allen knows that her coming-of-age might be considered atypical for LGBT
kids even now, but it was definitely not the norm for someone growing
up on the South Side in the 1940s and 1950s.
She had the good fortune of being born into a family in which her
parents recognized their son was “different” from a very young age and
accepted him as a “her.” Allen was the oldest of 14 children, and her
parents told their kids as well as other family members to call Allen
When she turned 24 years old, she decided to live full time as a woman.
“My mother said, ‘You sure?’ and I discussed it with my father and
grandparents and they accepted it,” Allen said. “My mother smiled and
said, ‘You have to buy your own dresses. You can’t wear mine.'”
Allen said her mother, grandmother and great-aunt helped guide her by
showing her which styles of dresses were more complementary to her
frame. Allen said she’s 5 feet 9 inches tall and wears a size 10, making
her a replica of her mother, a 1958 Jet magazine centerfold model.
“Before I left the house, I had to model my outfit for these women,”
Allen said. “If I didn’t look right, they’d stop me. They’d say,
‘Sister, you can’t wear that.'”
“My great-aunt, God rest her soul — she lived to be 101 — she would say,
‘Ladies wear a slip. Ladies carry a purse.’ And she said you always had
to have at least $5 in it, in case your date tries to get too familiar
and then won’t bring you home because you wouldn’t let him do what he
wanted to do.”
Allen said the women also taught her how to apply makeup, starting the
process with greasepaint, a heavier foundation used in show business
for better coverage. And she learned other tips from older transgender
Allen, a former nurse, said that even with this type of direction, she
wasn’t sure she could pass as a woman. She did, however, and she knows
passing is at the heart of what some young transgender men and women are
trying to do but haven’t yet mastered.
In her charm school, which meets Thursday evenings at the center, she
teaches her pupils how to apply makeup and take care of their skin and
how to dress respectfully. She talks about why exercising and
maintaining a healthy diet are important. There also are lessons in dining etiquette and the art of holding a conversation.
“You have to be well-read and you don’t have to use profanity, either,” Allen told the class at a recent meeting.
Several young transgender women sat around a table, listening and learning from Allen and one another.
“Some of you transgender girls sit down like men,” Allen said as she walked around the class.
“Don’t sit like that,” she gently told one who crossed her legs. To
another, she said it wasn’t proper for her to brush her hair in public.
Allen asked another to button her jacket to cover her exposed midriff.
The class talked about how other cultures handle transgender people and
why it’s important to take the proper amount of hormones in preparation
for sexual reassignment surgery.
When a 19-year-old said she’d been doubling up on pills, Allen pleaded with her to stop.
“You’re putting your body, your liver and kidneys, at risk,” said Allen,
who had reassignment surgery when she was 37. “You’ve been a boy for 19
years. You can’t turn into a girl overnight. Be patient. I don’t want
you to hurt yourself.”
Allen said she knows that charm school instructors might not typically
talk about safe sex practices or the perils of abusing alcohol and drugs
or even domestic abuse.
“But transgender people are abused by their partners at high rates, and
no one talks about it,” she said. “They may abuse drugs and alcohol to
cope. They’re ashamed, but the real shame is not doing something about
She said transgender people have dual identities that they’re trying to learn and unlearn.
“It’s not an easy journey, but I’ve been on it for a long time,” she
said. “The women in my family were fabulous teachers. I never had
children, but I feel like I have them now.”