The violence against our trans sisters has been on the rise in the past two years. according to the Harvard Civil Rights Civil Liberties Law Review. The violence was so compounded in 2020 that it was described as a “pandemic within a pandemic.” As we’ve reported several times, the life expectancy for trans women, according to a study by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, is just 30 and 35 years old. Meanwhile the life expectancy for cis gender men and women is 78.
And while that is one very grim reality, there is also the flip side of the coin, which we don’t often discuss.
Trans people have been around since the beginning of time. So no doubt, there are trans women who have defied the odds and managed to live very full, active and healthy lives.
A new documentary film explores the life of one such woman, Gloria Allen, known affectionately as Mama Gloria.
The film, Mama Gloria, directed by Luchina Fisher, follows the incredible life of Allen, who at 75-years-old, has seen and experienced quite a bit from bullying, violation, love, and the embrace of the community she so beautifully represents.
Ahead of the film’s premiere at AfroPoP: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange airing on WORLD Channel and worldchannel.org on April 5, we spoke to Ms. Allen and Luchina Fisher about the film, Mama Gloria’s legacy and advice for advice for trans youth.
Fisher first heard of Mama Gloria’s story through a friend who’d read a 2018 Chicago Tribune article about Mama Gloria and passed it along saying, “I found your next project for you.”
The Tribune article mentioned the Charm School Mama Gloria had founded for trans youth.
“I was just thunderstruck,” Fisher said. “Here is this woman who transitioned before Stonewall and she did it with the love and support of her mother and grandmother. They just sounded like such interesting, amazing people.”
Fisher, who is the mother of a transgender daughter was immediately attracted to Gloria’s life and wanted to know more about her. Fisher’s daughter is a LGBTQ advocate and was traveling to Chicago for a speaking engagement. There, she got a chance to put a face to Mama Gloria’s story. And she knew after that, she needed to bring her story to screen.
“We have the young people who are making the movement very visible right now. But there are the elders who we don’t often hear from who really paved the way for this moment. I really wanted to illuminate that. And I really wanted to show my daughter. This is my way of trying to make the world a better and safer place for her.”
Mama Gloria agrees and was thrilled that Fisher wanted to share her story in this way.
“I need to be out there because so many young trans women think that they won’t live to get forty. And I want to let them know that you can live past forty if you know how to navigate through life. It has its ups and downs and I went all through that.”
Part of the reason Mama Gloria was able to navigate life in the way she has was because she had the support of her mother and grandmother as she was growing up and today, her cousins, who were her defenders and protectors.
“The support of my family that meant so much to me,” Mama Gloria said. “All these amazing women in my household, I couldn’t believe it. But they were there. I could sit and talk with them about any and everything. They listened to me and they also gave me good information because the men in my family weren’t too thrilled about having a trans child in the household. But my mother, my grandmother, they wore the pants so they were the bosses.”
But the world was not always as welcoming. In high school, before she transitioned was the victim of sexual assault. And after she had been living with a woman for years, Gloria found herself in her first relationship with a man. Though things started off idyllically, it wasn’t long before he became violent.
“I thought this was the man I was going to spend the rest of my life with. But it didn’t work out that way, he was abusive. He fought me, did everything under the sun to hurt me. And he did. I stayed in the relationship thinking that he might change. But in my case, no he didn’t change.”
It was Gloria’s mother and grandmother who counseled her through getting out of that relationship. Her grandmother told her, ‘If a man beats on you, get away from him because it leads to a bad situation and sometimes your life.’
Reflecting back on that time, Mama Gloria said, “I thought about it and I said, ‘I don’t want to leave this earth yet because I’ve got a lot of things that I want to do.’ I got out of it and never went back into it.”
Thank God she did.
In the years since she left, she worked, retired, spent time with her family, and eventually founded the charm school, which further endeared her to the LGBTQ community.
Mama Gloria shared she was inspired to start the school after a group of young trans women were hanging around the community center scantily clad and loud-talking. After she confronted them that day, and they heeded her words, Mama Gloria decided to start a charm school.
She pitched the idea to the CEO of the center and after some initial pushback, he finally gave in.
“It was like two days out of the week. And the children, the young men and women were so happy to have somebody who wanted to talk to them. I’d sit there and I’d listen to them. They listened to me and we got along so well. I taught charm school for five years and I’m so glad that I did it.”
That’s the benefit of having older, wiser trans elders to impart wisdom to the next generation. And even though Mama Gloria knows she has wisdom and insight to offer the next generation, there was a time she didn’t know if she would be around to do so.
“When I was coming up, in the 50s and the 60s, they were killing trans people, gay people to no end. I didn’t think I was going to live to be 30 myself. But I was a fighter. I was tough. And I protect myself. Plus, my family did too. It was a hardship that I had to go through life knowing that people could hate me for being who I was and who I am.”
But in the midst of all that hatred, Mama Gloria, managed to live fully. She suggests the same is possible for trans youth.
“What I want them to know is love is the key to happiness,” Mama Gloria said, “You’ve got to love yourself and you’ve got to love others. We have to join forces and learn how to live. And to live, you have to love because God put us here to love one another, no matter. And when people learn that this will be a better world.”
Loving themselves and others includes looking back toward the trans men and women who have paved the way for this generation to live as proud as they are now.
“We don’t get the recognition that we deserve and the younger trans women they need to step up to the plate and say, ‘Look at Lady Java, a beautiful trans woman of color and she’s been around for a while. She’s been in movies.’ The youth now, Janet Mock, Laverne Cox and Angelica Ross, they’re doing great things but they are forgetting about the older women.”
The older women are still here and also advocates in the fight for trans rights and the protection of the community.
“Through the grace of God and my family, I made it and I’m here to tell about it,” Mama Gloria said, “Even my family members say, ‘Oh you’re the oldest and you’re still here. 75 years.’ And I say, ‘Well, it wasn’t my time to go.’ I know the good Lord is going to keep me until the work has been done because I’m an advocate against violence against trans women.”
You can listen to the song, “Presence of a Legend” about Mama Gloria in the video below.
You can watch Mama Gloria on Monday, April 5 at AfroPoP: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange airing on WORLD Channel and worldchannel.org.