Chicago transgender icon and activist Gloria Allen, who founded and ran a charm school for homeless trans youth and was the subject of the award-winning documentary "Mama Gloria" and the critically acclaimed play "Charm," has died at the age of 76.
Allen was born in Bowling Green, Kentucky, on October 6, 1945. She grew up in Chicago amid the legendary drag balls on the city's South Side and transitioned before Stonewall with the love and support of her mother Alma, a showgirl and former Jet magazine centerfold, and her grandmother Mildred, a seamstress for crossdressers and strippers.
Allen overcame traumatic violence in high school to become an out and proud leader in her community. She earned a LPN and worked at the University of Chicago Hospital and in private homes as a nurse's aide. In her later years, she pioneered a charm school for young transgender people at Chicago's Center on Halsted, offering lessons on love, makeup and manners that she received from her mother and grandmother. The young people affectionately nicknamed her "Mama Gloria."
Her life and activism were featured in the Chicago Tribune and served as inspiration for the hit play "Charm," written by Philip Dawkins. The play premiered at Steppenwolf Garage Theater in Chicago before traveling to Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and New York.
For her work with the charm school, Allen was awarded the Living Legend Award by Janet Mock and Precious Brady-Davis at the 2014 Trans 100 Awards. She famously appeared on the cover of the book, "To Survive on This Shore," with photographs and interviews of trans and non-binary elders by Jess T. Dugan.
In 2020, she became the subject of the acclaimed documentary feature "Mama Gloria," directed by Luchina Fisher. The film was broadcast on "Afropop: the Ultimate Cultural Exchange" on World channel and PBS and was nominated for a GLAAD Media Award. The documentary brought Allen new audiences and new fame. Her story was featured in People magazine, the 19th News, the BBC and NowThisNews. In 2021, she received SAGE's Advocacy Award for Excellence in Leadership on Aging Issues at the National LGBTQ Task Force's annual Creating Change Conference.
Allen's body was discovered Monday morning in her apartment at the LGBTQ-friendly senior residence Town Hall Apartments in Chicago. She is believed to have died peacefully in her sleep. She is survived by several siblings and numerous nieces and nephews, as well as her chosen family.
"I hit walls that were up against me, but I pressed through the walls and made myself known to everybody because I'm not ashamed, and I want people to know that," she told The 19th News.