Gloria Allen, a Black transgender icon and activist who dedicated her life to Chicago’s trans community, died on Monday at the age of 76.
Allen — also known as “Mama Gloria” — is believed to have died peacefully while asleep in her Chicago apartment at an LGBTQ senior residence home, according to a statement from Luchina Fisher, who directed a documentary about Allen in 2020.
Allen transitioned in the 1950s, prior to the modern LGBTQ rights movement that began with the 1969 Stonewall riots and long before the term “transgender” became mainstream. In a previous interview with NBC News, she credited her coming out to the love and support of her mother, Alma, a showgirl and former Jet magazine centerfold, and her grandmother, Mildred, a seamstress for cross-dressers and strippers.
“I didn’t have all the tools that they have out today for the younger people. So I had to do my thing, and I did it. I walked with my head up high due to my family,” she said, noting there weren’t any community centers or resources for LGBTQ people that she could readily access. “I didn’t know anything about lesbians and gays, because we didn’t have any rights back then.”
Allen worked at the University of Chicago Hospital as a licensed practical nurse and then in private homes as a nurse's aide. But she was best known for her work in transgender activism.
More than a decade ago, as a trans elder, Allen started a charm school at Center on Halsted in Chicago to educate trans youth about etiquette and proper behavior. Her school inspired the 2015 play “Charm,” written by Philip Dawkins, which ran in Chicago, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C.
Allen then rose to national prominence nearly two years ago, when she became the subject of a documentary feature “Mama Gloria.” The documentary showcased the intersection of race- and gender-based oppression, and it showed how trans people can thrive when they are loved and supported by their families.
“I want the world to know I have a life, and I have a right to be here on this planet,” Allen told NBC News shortly after the documentary's release. “I’m happy to tell my story.”
Fisher paid tribute on Tuesday to Allen and her accomplishments for trans rights.
"Mama Gloria Allen always called me her angel. But she was my angel," Fisher wrote on Twitter. "These last four years have been life-changing. I will carry her love and spirit with me always. RIP #mamagloria"