Season 2 Episode 7:
Teaching Charm & Embracing Age in the Trans Community: Interview and Stories with “Mama” Gloria Allen

Phil: Hey, this is Phil aka Corinne.

Alex: And I’m Alex Berg. And you’re listening to…

Both: The I’m From Driftwood Podcast.

Phil:  In 2018, IFD sat down with Gloria Allen to talk about what it was like growing up trans in Kentucky, the influence she had from 3 very protective women, and how an encounter with three misbehaving youth led to starting a charm school.

Gloria: In the late fifties, when we got to Chicago, these amazing women, you know, like the three women, my mother, my grandmother, and my great-aunt, these women were… they were smart, beautiful and they were strong women and they protected me. And I could feel the love that they would project to me.

I had so many girlfriends that were girlfriends, not girls that I wanted to sleep with or go with, but these were special girlfriends in grammar school, in high school. And I would put on makeup and do my eyes. And back then eye brown pencil was the thing, so I would do my eyes up and before I get back to home, I had to take all that stuff off.

And I forgot one day and when I came in, my mother looked at me. She said, “You got eye makeup on.”

And I said, “No, I don’t have no eye-”

She said, “I know eye makeup when I see it.”

I said, “Okay then.”

And she said, “Oh baby, you can’t do that now. You know, wait till you get a little older. My mother, she would explain things to me. She said, “Boys, even men, are going to want to put their hands on you.” And she said, “But if they do, please come to me and we can straighten it out.”

My mother sat down and she told me, she said, “Let me tell you something, baby. You’re different.”  She said “You got so many feminine ways in you.” She said, “And I have to protect you.”

They were all protective of me because my great aunt – it tickled me – I was telling her about her grandchildren and I remember one particular day in Chicago in Hyde park. And it had to be around, I think, in the sixties, 62 or 63. I remember coming down the street in a dress and I was just cutting up, coming down the street, just shaking and swinging hair. And I saw them coming toward me. So I ducked behind a car. And I felt so ashamed because, you know, I didn’t want them to see me acting like that.

So I told my great-aunt. I said, “I saw Michael coming down the street with his girlfriend and I ducked behind a car.”

And she said, “Baby, why would you duck behind a car?”

I said, “‘Cause I didn’t want them to know what I was and who I was.”

And she told me, “Oh, we already know about you and what you do and everything.” She said, “You don’t have to duck behind nobody’s cars.” She’s said, “‘Cause they love you no matter what.” And I was so relieved. I sat there and I cried in our house.

And she said, “Oh, baby, we’re not ashamed of you.”

And I said, “Okay.” You know, that made me feel so secure about my life and I thank my great aunt for that.

And my grandmother, she was perfect too. My grandmother was the seamstress, so she sewed clothes and she would sew clothes for male strippers, their G-strings and everything, and I’d be there in the house with her while she’s doing it.

And I’m saying to myself, “Oh my God, what is my grandmother doing? She’s holding there, you know, private parts and stitching up stuff on it.”

And I would say, “Grandma, why are you doing it?”

She said, “I make my money, honey. You know, and then you just have to accept it.”  And I said, Oh, my grandmother is just a freak. That’s what I thought. I’m saying, Ooooh.

And she had one friend named Sonny and Sonny was sort of, he was really sweet, you know, and I’d see Sonny and I just crack up and laugh. And I would ask my grandmother, I said, “Do I act like him?”

She said, “No, baby, you don’t act like him.” She said, “‘Cause he’s confused. He don’t know if he wants to be a man or a woman.” She said, “But you know what you are. And, you know, and I love that because you are comfortable with yourself.”

If it wasn’t for these women, I wouldn’t be here today because they showed me the way, you know, they really navigated my life until when I got grown to do what I wanted to do.

I’m so grateful and thankful for them today because I know they’re up in heaven, still looking down and worrying about me. Yeah. So I’m happy about that.

Since I’ve gotten older, my life has changed a lot. But at the age of 67, I was still in the community and going to the center on Halsted for the senior luncheons. I’ll never forget that. And while I was there, you know, we’re sitting down, the seniors, we’re having lunch. And these young trans girls come in, scantily dressed. They were gyrating and cutting up and, you know, in broad daylight in the center. And people are coming in with their children.

I didn’t like what they were doing, so I got up and I went over to them and I said something about it. I told them, you know, “Be respectable of yourselves, because if you don’t respect yourself, nobody else will.” And I told them, “Just be polite. Watch what you say come out of your mouth, you know, tone it down a bit. You know, you don’t have to be perfect because you’re not. I’m not perfect, but I know how to conduct myself in public.”

You could see the look on people’s face, you know, Who in the hell do she think she is? You know, I got that impression, too. And some of them said, “Oh… okay.” You know, they were nice about it. Then I went back to the table and I got a bell, said, “Ding!” I saids, “They need charm. You need to help them.”

So I went to one of the people that work there at the center. And I told them what I saw and what they need to do. So she said, “Okay, that’s a good idea.”

I say, “Yeah, I need to teach a charm school here.” You know, I said, “Because, you know, they need some class about themself.” When they did get back with me, I was tickled pink. I said, Now I can help out as much as I can.

So Charm School started and it took off. I had 30 people, you know, boys –  well, young men and women. And my classes were – I did it a twice a week during that time when it first started. I would teach them hygiene first, ‘cause a lot of them didn’t have it. You know, if you don’t have soap and water, you know, people don’t want to be around somebody that’s having offensive older, you know, ‘cause I’m that way. So they, I would teach them what to do and I would tell them if you do can’t afford it, I’ll provide for you. And I did. And uh, they appreciated it, you know?

And then dress for success. You know, it’s a time and a place to put your hoochie mama clothes on, but you have to know when and where. You know, they were quick to learn, which I was happy about.

And then I would talk to them about your personality. You know, if you got a bad day or something didn’t go right your away, you know, don’t take it out on the world, you know? Just calm yourself down and reconsider what you would do in return. So every time I would have class with them, I gave them some good information on how to conduct themselves, how to dress, and how to keep their appearance up, you know?

It was crowded. And it was a whole lot of different attitudes, but I learned how to navigate through them, you know, win them over, which I did. I taught charm school for five years and it was the best five years of my life because I’m there to help somebody. Some have gone on to college and finished. Then some of them are just, you know, got good jobs and they changed their ways and they thank me today for it. And I keep in touch with them. So I love that, you know, to get the feedback from them and how they’re being motivated by what I tried to give to them.

You know, if you carry yourself in a good manner, people will love you. And people think that if you’re gay or transgender, they get this perception that we all low-lifed and that’s not true. That’s not true. That could be in the heterosexual world. You can be low-lifed, too, you know? But social graces carry you a long way.

Alex: We are so pleased to welcome back to I’m From Driftwood, Gloria Allen.

Phil: Gloria, welcome back!

Gloria: Hello! Glad to be back!

Alex: Let’s just jump right in. I’d love to know how you’re doing now, all things considered. I know this might be a weird question to ask, but how is it going?

Gloria: Well, everything is like, I’m on a whirlwind hurricane, like, okay? The documentary about me, “Mama Gloria,” is a documentary, is out. It’s been getting rave reviews and I’m so excited about that. Luchina Fisher is the producer. She has done such a fantastic job with me. I’m so excited about it. And now I’m excited to be here with you all.

Phil: That’s so great.

Alex: We love it.

Phil: And we love to talk to our returning guests about any fun memories they had from their time of shooting with us.

Gloria: The fun memories that I had was when I went over and sat with the guys and they fed me. So I – and brought coffee during the winter time, you know, but I had a fun time.

Phil: Well, we really love your original stories. And we were extremely moved by one of the stories of your mother and your grandmother and your great-aunt and how protective they were about you growing up. And you recall a story when your mother catches you wearing eye makeup. But the way you tell it, she didn’t – she didn’t seem too upset, you know?  Why do you think your mother was so tender with you about this? Why do you think she wasn’t upset?

Gloria: My mother knew before I knew myself. And my mother, she tickled me, I remember one day she said, “Is there another woman in my house?” And I looked at her in a strange peculiar way.

And I said, “I don’t think so.”

She said, But it’s got to be another woman because my makeup is being used and my clothes are being worn.” She said, “Don’t you want to tell me something?” And then I say, What the hell I’m going to tell her?

“Yes, it’s another woman in your house. It’s me.”

And she said, “Oh, I figured it.” She said, “I figured it out.” She said, “Well, you can talk to me.”

And I said, “Well, I will.”

She said, “Now your dad won’t understand it.”

And I said, “Well, who cares about him? I don’t.” You know, so I told my mother, I said, “I’m Gloria.”

And she said, ‘Where’d you get that name from?”

I said, “Well, I figured out, you know, G for George. G for Gloria! So I’m dropping the George and I’m picking up with Gloria.”

And she said, “Well, this secret will have to stay between you and me.”

And I said, “Okay.”

She said, “I can’t tell your dad.” She said, “I’m going to prep him into it.”

I said, “Okay, do that.” She didn’t take it long in talking to him.

She said, “Well, you know, George is no more. We got Gloria here in the house.”

And my dad asked her, “Well, who in the hell is Gloria?”

She said, “That’s your baby!”

He said, “My baby?” He said, “I only have George and Herb.”

And she said, “No, George has decided to pack up and leave. George is no more.”

I said, “You told him like that?”

She said, “I sure did.” My mother actually wore the pants in the house, so she had full control of everything. He had a hard time accepting it, but my mother did. My grandmother did. And my great aunt did. So these three amazing women, I could talk to them about anything and everything. This went on for years with me with these fantastic women.

Phil: You are so blessed with an incredible family and these women that you had in your life. But, you know, I want to ask you, because it seems like for some of the nurturing you got from these – some of these women, it led you to start the charm school for queer youth. And I want you to tell me a little bit about that. Like, were you nervous to speak to these kids? Like, how did you approach them? Tell me a little bit about that.

Gloria: One day I was at the Center on Halsted and we would sit and congregate there and I was there with the senior group. I saw a bunch of these young… young girls cutting up, dancing and, oh, I thought I was in a burlesque club. So what I did, I got up and I went over to them.

I said, “Don’t you see these young people coming in with their families, their children, their small babies? And you all are scantily dressed and shaken up a storm.” And so I thought they would give me some rough feedback, but they didn’t.

They said, “Oh, okay, Mama.”

And I said, “Okay, I’ll accept that. Call me Mama.” And a couple of times, I would go there and I would see the management and I told them we need a charm school here at the Center on Halsted. That’s how it got started. I would be there. I would teach charm school twice a week. I would even be at home cooking and bag up all this stuff and get a cab and take it to the school. It was such a pleasure sitting there. And they enjoyed it because they got a chance to open up to me.

And I would tell them things about myself and what I had to go through. I let them know: You’re not alone. I’m here. And if you need to talk about anything, you can with me. And I did that with them. And I did that for five years. And then Phil Dawkins, which is the writer, and Phil Dawkins sat with me for about six months, and he was writing things that I would do. They wanted to do a play bout charm. I was on cloud nine. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. And the play Charm became such a hit.

Alex: That’s so amazing. And I can just see when you talk about the charm school, you just absolutely light up. So I want to know, do you keep in contact with any of your former students?

Gloria: Yes. A girl named Stacy. Stacy went on to college and she was always a smart girl, but she just didn’t know how to keep up with her appearance. And she said that I inspired her to look the way she is today. And she is on a radio talk show every week. And I’m so proud of her. And she will call me up every now and then and check on me and ask me, “Mama Gloria, you needed anything? I’m going to come by.” And she did. And I’m so proud of my babies, I don’t know what to do.

Phil: That is so sweet. Some of the trans and queer youth that you met, you know, when you started the charm school, didn’t have the same support from their family that you had. What was your biggest piece of advice to those kids that didn’t have that support at home?

Gloria: My biggest advice to them, you know, you know, you can’t pick and choose your family. You know, you never can do that. You know, sometimes we’re born into a family that’s not right for us. We have to sorta stay in there and fight for our rights, even within our family circle. So what I tell them, don’t disrespect your family. And go to different places that they accept trans people like the Center on Halsted and tell your story to them because sometimes an outsider can help you more than your family can.


Alex: Well, clearly you have taught so many people so many important lessons over time. What is something important that you’ve learned from your students?

Gloria: I’ve learned a lot about life through them. You know, because I was never put on the streets. Never had that in my mind to do that. Now, when I got grown, when I moved out on my own, I did some bad things in life that I’m not too proud of, but that was a learning experience for me. It made me a better person.

And then I’ve got to say this, too. I met this beautiful transgender girl named Hailie Sahar She’s in Pose. And she became a good friend or mine, so I call her my daughter. And that’s what I tried to tell my charm school people: you’re going to go through life, you’re going to meet people, but always be classy. And they do that. And I’m so proud of them.

Phil: Great advice. That is really great advice. So as we start to wind down, I want to talk about the LGBTQ+ senior center you live in. Last season, we had a friend of yours and a friend of ours, Don Bell, as a guest, and he happens to live in the same place. Why do you think it’s important for there to be housing specifically for queer seniors?

Gloria: Well, you know, we get up in age and our family members, ‘cause it has happened to me, I lost my mother, my grandmother and my great-aunt. The youth, the younger generation, they put us out to pasture. But in this senior building that we live in, we’re all here together. We have a connection. We sit, we laugh. we talk. Some don’t want to be bothered. Some do.

I think I’m about the third oldest one in here and it doesn’t bother me at all because Don Bell is such a sweetheart. He checks on me. I check on him. You have some seniors in the building. They don’t want to be bothered. And I understand that, you know, and I leave them be. You know, I let them alone. But if they need me, I’m here for them, you know? And I have so much fun being in the building.

Eventually, I hope to, in the next couple of years, to move out of the building and move to Savannah, Georgia, because that’s where I want to go. And but I will miss my family here, but it’s time for me to move on. Yes.

Alex: Well, do you think it’s incumbent upon the LGBTQ+community to preserve the stories of our elders?

Gloria: Yes, because so many of the young people, they stand on our shoulders to get where they want to get. And they need to learn from our trials and tribulations and our stories, it could help them to be a better person. I’m so proud that I’m an older person and we need to treasure our elders and we can learn so much from each other. Because I learned from the youth, they learn from me.

You know, with this stuff that’s going on here today, we all need to come together and let them know we’re worthy and we need to treasure that. I just don’t, you know, it’s just so much love that I get from people and I take that love and spread it out in everywhere. So I’m happy, you know, because it’s so many trans women, trans girls that are being murdered at an alarming rate and we need to stand up and fight for our rights.

Alex: So you mentioned that hopefully in a couple of years, you’ll land in Georgia. What is next for you, Gloria?

Gloria: Oh, okay! Well, my book, hopefully will be out this year and then I’m working on a second novel. If you can get the chance, go see the documentary, because it’s so fantastic and they filmed it and I got through it. And then we went to my church, lot of churches during the time when I was coming up, we weren’t allowed in the church. If they found out you were transgender, the church, my church didn’t do that to me, but I talked about it. A lot of ministers that are out there today, they don’t talk about transgender people. They don’t help transgender people. And they supposed to be the man of God or behind God. But they don’t know what God is all about. God is not about hatred. God don’t discriminate. God is all about love. And that’s what people need to learn today.

Alex: Well, that feels like the bright note to leave this on. Gloria, thank you so much for joining us.

Gloria: Okay, you all take care and I hope to see you again!

Phil:  The I’m From Driftwood Podcast is hosted by Phil aka Corinne

Alex: And Alex Berg, and is produced by Andy Egan-Thorpe.

Phil: It’s recorded as a program of I’m From Driftwood, a worldwide nonprofit LGBTQAI+ story archive.

Alex: I’m From Driftwood’s Founder and Executive Director is Nathan Manske. It’s Program Director is Damien Mittlefehldt.

Phil: I’m From Driftwood is a nonprofit organization, and this Podcast was funded in part by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.

Alex: Additional funding is provided by TD Bank and Heritage of Pride New York.

Phil: I’m From Driftwood was created to help queer and trans people learn more about their community…

Alex: Help straight people learn more about their neighbors…

Phil: And help everyone learn more about themselves…

Alex: All through the power of storytelling.

Phil: Our score is provided by Elevate Audio.

Alex: The stories you heard today are available in their entirety, plus thousands more. And

Phil:. You can also follow I’m From Driftwood on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube. Or subscribe to our podcast wherever you get your podcasts.

Alex: Thanks for listening y’all.

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