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It is the unspoken order of things that Black women do not show all they have endured. Gloria Allen, the namesake of the documentary Mama Gloria, certainly doesn't. Like so many Black women before her, Mama Gloria wagers that respectability can protect her from being mistreated, believing "if you act like a lady, you'll be treated like a lady."
Over the last several decades, Mama Gloria has become famous in her native Chicago for teaching etiquette to young transgender women who lacked the same polish she had at their age. Now at 70-something, she looks like (and is) that dignified Black elder who wishes today's young girls would act more ladylike. But she is also the fun aunt, as the silver pixie cut and sleeveless dress she wears to her childhood church attest—the one bougie enough to wear a matching fur hat and coat to ward off Chicago's chill, but hip enough to rock pink ombre curls to lunch with her high school classmates.
At this lunch with former classmates, the audience witnesses how Black women minimize trauma to be sociable. When asked how she related to the boys at school before she transitioned, Gloria allows that "some of them had fun" with her, alluding to how her classmates gang-raped her when she was a student. This scene captures what the film does so well.
Rather than offering a litany of the trauma that Black trans women endure, we see how anti-trans violence may have haunted Mama Gloria's life, but does not define it. The film's poignancy comes from contrasting the victories and disappointments that make up any life with a portrayal of the unique forces that subject Black transgender women to premature death.
Gloria Allen's status as a trans woman in her seventies makes her exceptional. Indeed, director Luchina Fisher made the film out of a desire to find Black trans women role models for her transgender daughter, Gia.
Fortunately, Mama Gloria beating the odds is where the movie starts, not where it ends. The film could not be timelier as states in the Midwest and South race to pass anti-trans bills focused on regulating the lives of transgender youth, especially transgender girls. In its celebration of Mama Gloria's long life, the film rebukes the annihilating impulses that undergird such legislation.
The documentary takes us on a journey through Mama Gloria's life in Chicago, from childhood to the present day. Her mom's time as a performer and her grandmother's work as a seamstress for drag balls meant that Gloria's family was supportive when she came out as trans.
That support is also evident during Gloria's visit with her female cousins, who reminisce about what it was like when she came out to them. Gloria's glamorous style and fun-loving personality, inherited from her mom, won over her cousins (and their boyfriends) when they were younger. Even Gloria's father stood up for her, beating up the classmates that assaulted her. In a welcome reprieve from other films about the lives of transgender people, the movie takes her family's acceptance for granted, with Gloria joking at the outset that the only time she was in the closet was to "get me an outfit and a pair of pumps."
Her grandmother's work sewing outfits for drag balls also provides a rare window into Black queer life of the 1950s. The archival footage of the costumes and songs from drag balls of that era was an unexpected treat. Rarer still is the film's portrayal of a transgender woman in a long-term relationship. Like Gloria, we fall for the charming younger man with the seductive smile who courted her. They bought a house together in a middle-class Black neighborhood and lived the ordinary life of any other couple.
Sadly, her fairy-tale turned into a nightmare when her partner became physically abusive. The dramatization of her struggle to leave an abusive partner shows the human side of the grim statistic that 56 percent of Black transgender people experience intimate partner violence. One of the most chilling moments in the documentary comes when Gloria realizes that not even shooting her partner would stop his abuse.
The latter half of the film is a glimpse into the realities that shape the lives of transgender people as they age. Like many childless elders, we see her cousins debate over who will take care of her when she suffers a bad fall. They resolve to visit her more often rather than asking her to sacrifice her pride to stay with one of them.
Unlike most queer elders, Gloria lives independently in one of just two queer elder housing complexes in the United States, and is spared the indignity of having to go back into the closet to secure housing in old age. Money is a worry, though, and we see Gloria cleaning houses to supplement her limited income. Scenes of Gloria's precarity are a sobering reminder of the hardships of growing old in the United States that are only exacerbated by Gloria's status as a transgender woman.
But it's not all hardship, and the audience witnesses the upside of growing old enough to metaphorically get your flowers while you are alive, too. The queer community in Chicago treats Mama Gloria like royalty, a sentiment best expressed in the outro song, "Presence of a Legend" by Shea Diamond. The song's title riffs on author Janet Mock's statement in honor of Mama Gloria at an award ceremony, asking that the crowd "stand in the presence of a legend."
Only a legend would be stopped on the street, as Mama Gloria is repeatedly, by younger transgender women who thank her for how she touched their lives. And only a legend would have a play made about her life that makes it all the way from Chicago to New York, as Mama Gloria does. Mama Gloria's model of living out loud even inspired the actor in the New York version of the play to come out as a trans woman.
The theme of intergenerational care, evident in how Allen reaches back to her past to provide etiquette classes, comes full circle when a queer youth theater company interviews her about her life. Gloria is as vivacious as ever when she meets with the kids, her missing teeth the only hint of the ordeal she faced after the fall that landed her in the hospital.
Fittingly, the film gives Gloria the last words. She tells us exactly how she wants to be remembered: for her dimples—inherited from her beloved mother—and for her heart. The film's biggest gift is that it allows Allen to define her life on her own terms, not by trauma or by the imposed gaze of others. Mama Gloria reminds us, as Allen herself tearfully states during her award ceremony, that transgender people "are a blessing."