“A lot of the challenges we face as trans people are inside,” remarked transgender advocate and actress Delia Kropp during an interview at the Mosaic Theater a few years ago. Kropp was a consultant for the play “Charm,” based on the life and work of Chicago-born trans activist Gloria Allen, which was staged across the country. “You’re just ripping yourself apart over who you are, and is it worth it?”
Gloria Allen spent a great part of her life letting members of the trans community know that trans people “are a blessing” and that they definitely are worth it. Now, Allen’s life has gotten the documentary treatment.
“Mama Gloria,” directed by Luchina Fisher, opened the 13th annual AfroPop: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange on WORLD Channel April 5. Presented by Black Public media, other episodes this season include “Finding Sally,” Tamara Mariam Dawit’s look at family history and the mysterious disappearance of her aunt in Ethiopia (airing April 12) and Dr. Yaba Blay’s spotlight on the women of New Orleans in “Professional Black Girl” (April 19). April 26 brings a shorts collection featuring Christine Turner’s “Betye Saar: Taking Care of Business,” a profile of the Los Angeles-based nonagenarian visual artist; “Man of the People,” about Chicago’s first Black mayor, Harold Washington, and the season closes May 3 with “Bakosó: Afrobeats of Cuba,” an exploration of the city of Santiago de Cuba and its musical genre known as bakosó. New episodes of AfroPoP premiere each Monday on WORLD Channel and worldchannel.org at 8 p.m. ET.
Assigned male at birth, Allen’s childhood name was George. However, she always publicly expressed herself as femme from a young age. Now 75, Allen states in the film, “I knew I was a girl in the wrong body and I didn’t like it. I didn’t want to be a boy. I knew when I got older I was gonna change.”
Though people in her community were sometimes hostile toward her, Allen found warmth and acceptance in her family. In a previous interview Allen commented on the support she received early on that gave her a confidence she wouldn’t have had otherwise. Her grandmother told her, “We’ve always known who you were and what you were. You don’t have to hide from us.” She looked up to her mother, grandmother and great- aunt. “Those were the three amazing women I looked up to in my lifetime. They were there for me.” Her step-father exacted vengeance on a group of youths who sexually assaulted her when she was in high school.
The documentary, told in a verite style, follows Gloria in her Chicago neighborhood where she stands as a fixture and a revered role model for many trans youth. There are also extensive interviews with Allen describing life for the trans community in Chicago as she grew up in the ’50s, ’60s and beyond. Not only was Allen trans herself, but the film shows her family was proximal to the trans community in other ways; her grandmother, a seamstress, sewed costumes for many trans performers.
The film boasts a sizable collection of vintage photos celebrating the glamour, pageantry, and spectacle of trans nightlife in mid-20th century Chicago. There are also vintage photos of Allen’s mother, hearkening back to the time of the Black pin-up model. Allen’s mother, nick-named “The Body,” was a Jet magazine centerfold.
Allen exudes warmth at all turns; the camera follows her around her neighborhood as she accepts an award from writer, director and trans activist Janet Mock, as she reunites with old high school friends, and in her studio interviews. She details her excitement about the play based on her life, her romantic history, how she views her role in her community today, and relationships with friends and family, with unabashed intimacy.
Allen also makes the viewer privy to her journey into the physical expression of her womanhood when she became an adult. She shares her first furtive, terrifying, unsteady steps, using balloons as substitutes for breasts and asking her boss if she could wear feminine clothing at work, to the day when she felt fully comfortable in her outward appearance. “George stepped out of my body and went about his business,” she states about turning that significant corner. Particularly resonant is Allen’s recall of the way her mother cared for her in the immediate aftermath of her gender reassignment surgery.
Allen is most known to those outside the LGBTQ community for her “Pygmalion” style decision to take the transgender youths on Chicago’s South Side, many summarily cast out of their families, under her wing, opening a charm school.
A spontaneous raucous (and unwelcome) performance by a group of trans women and girls at an otherwise understated eatery during lunch convinced Allen, who observed it disapprovingly, that many trans women and girls needed guidance in decorum as well as their social identities as women. She states in the film, “I thought about it and said these girls don’t have a clue. They don’t know what love is or how to conduct themselves in public.” She became not only a teacher but a mentor and maternal figure, roles the film illustrates that come to Allen naturally.