Legendary Chicago Black transgender activist, icon and mentor "Mama" Gloria Allen died June 13 in her residence at Chicago's LGBTQ senior living facility Townhall Apartments in Lake View. The cause of death is unknown at this time. She was 76.
Allen was born Oct. 6, 1945 in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and grew up on a farm there before moving to Chicago's South Side in the late 1950s. Allen received an LPN degree and worked as a nurse's aide at University of Chicago Medicine and in private homes at various points of her professional life.
Four years prior to the Stonewall Uprising, Allen came out and at that time was involved in Chicago's South Side drag ball scene with her chosen family. Allen credited her showgirl and former Jet magazine centerfold mother Alma Allen, seamstress for crossdressers and strippers grandmother Mildred Johnson and great-aunt Fannie's strength and acceptance of her transgender identity for the woman she became.
In recent years, Allen led a charm school for LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness at Center on Halsted. At the 2014 Trans 100 Awards, Janet Mock and Precious Brady-Davis presented Allen with the Living Legend Award for her charm school work.
The critically acclaimed play Charm written by Philip Dawkins was inspired by her life and activism work. Charm premiered at the Steppenwolf Garage Theater. Subsequent productions were staged in Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and New York City.
Allen was also the focus of Luchina Fisher's award-winning documentary, Mama Gloria. It premiered at the 2020 Chicago International Film Festival and was subsequently aired on PBS's Afropop: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange. The documentary opened up a whole new audience outside of Chicago with feature stories about Allen in People Magazine, The 19th News online publication, the BBC and NowThis News.
Additionally, Allen received the Carmen Vázquez SAGE Award for Excellence in Leadership on Aging Issues at the National LGBTQ Task Force's 2021 Creating Change virtual conference. She was interviewed for the book To Survive on This Shore, by Jess T. Dugan and Vanessa Fabbre, alongside other transgender and non-binary elders as well as was featured on the book jacket cover. Allen also wrote an op-ed in this publication last year speaking about her experiences as an out transgender woman and her advocacy on behalf of Chicago's transgender youth population.
Allen is survived by her siblings, many nieces and nephews, chosen family members and friends and the numerous transgender youth she called her children.
"There is so much that should be said about my Aunt Gloria that my words seem futilely doomed to match the measure of what I need to say," said Allen's nephew Benton Johnson II, Ph.D. "So, whatever you see written add 100 percent more to its measure and you might get a glimpse of this amazing woman. I saw her show nurturing love and care to all in the familyeven to my little dog, Eli, whom she loved to watch whenever she could. My friend once commented that Aunt Gloria's apartment was so full of love that it made him comfortable enough to fall asleep upright on her couch while we talked aloud.
"Since I talked about family, let me say I was not always sure who was real family or chosen family as she treated everyone so spectacularly well. This attests to her commitment to humanity. She lived her life to the beat of equity; with her heart, legs and feet thumping to the beat of social justice with her special emphasis on improving transgender lives worldwide. While I wish she was still here to fix Great Grandma Mildred's gumbo one more time, I just have a feeling that she is over there stirring up some yummy gumbo goodness and charm for anyone who did not get enough love here. And that, for sure, was her secret ingredient for us all, love."
"I lost my Mama yesterday," said Dawkins. "I am struggling to find the words to express how much this wonderful woman meant to me, so, as usual, I will let her beautiful spirit do the real talking. If you knew her, you loved her. She had a hard life and used it to make life better and more beautiful for absolutely everyone she met. I realized this morning, she did not get to live a good life, but she chose to live it good. I know she is up there now singing in the choir, in a beautiful hat, while making eyes at the sexy heavenly choir director. I am full of sadness but mostly overflowing with gratitude, as I know all of us in her big beautiful family are. As Mama would say, love each other and be beautiful."
"Gloria was courageous, charismatic, a pioneer and an original," said Northlight Theatre Artistic Director BJ Jones; who also commissioned and directed Charm. "I loved her, as did the cast and Philip. She was generous in letting us into her life and loved the play. Her birthday was the day before mine so I kept up with her as did Philip and Armand Fields who played Jonelle in the world and west coast premieres of the play. It was a special experience and one I will never forget."
"Mama Gloria was love, strength and grace personified," said Fields, who can currently be seen as Bussy in the new Peacock series Queer as Folk. "She lit up every room she walked into and no matter who had the fortune of coming in contact with her, you would always walk away feeling seen and heard and your spirit would be dancing a little lighter. A community elder and leader, it was always an honor to be called one of her 'babies.' And now that she is no longer with us in the physical realm, her spirit and legacy can now be experienced by her babies old and new, far and wide."
"It is only fitting that Mama Gloria should leave us during Pride Month because she lived proudly and unapologetically," said Fisher. "I believe it was the love of her mother and grandmother that carried her through her 76 years on the planet. It is that love that Gloria passed forward to me and others and still remains."
"I am heartbroken hearing the news," said Brady-Davis in a Facebook post. "Gloria Allen was a legend of whose shoulders I stand on today. In 2014, I got to tell her publicly what her story of activism and survival meant to me as a young trans woman of color. [There are] too many girls leaving us too soon."
Memorial services details TBA.
Links to features and news concerning Allen which have appeared in Windy City Times:
Editorial by Gloria Allen in 2121: www.windycitytimes.com/lgbt/OP-ED-The-closet-doors-are-opening-/70205.html .
Film 'Mama Gloria': www.windycitytimes.com/lgbt/Mama-Gloria-about-Chicagos-elder-trans-activist-icon-to-screen-/69539.html .
Gloria Allen interview: www.windycitytimes.com/lgbt/At-the-heart-of-Mama-Gloria-Allen/50667.html .