Celebrating Transgender Awareness Week With “Mama Gloria” – A Film About Chicago’s Trailblazing Black Trans Icon & Activist

November Friday 13 – Friday 20th, 2020 is national Transgender Awareness Week, and today, Friday 20th is Transgender Day Of Remembrance. So there is no better time to spread the word about a beautiful documentary called “Mama Gloria”, from award-winning producer and writer Luchina Fisher (‘Birthright: A War Story‘) who makes her directorial debut with this film.

After celebrating a record number of trans folks who were recently elected to political office around the country in the November 3 general election, amplifying the stories of a community that continues to be demonized by conservative groups and policies is now an imperative in order to shift cultural attitudes. Films that humanize trans individuals and the trans experience are becoming a powerful force in society.

‘Mama Gloria’ film tells the story of Chicago’s Black transgender icon Gloria Allen, now in her 70s, who blazed a trail for trans people like few others before her. Emerging from Chicago’s South Side drag ball culture in the 1960s, Gloria overcame traumatic violence to become a proud leader in her community. Most famously, she pioneered a charm school for young transgender people that served as inspiration for the hit play ‘Charm’.

Director Luchina Fisher with Gloria Allen

Luchina’s empathic and engaging documentary is not only a portrait of a groundbreaking legend, but also a celebration of unconditional love, the love Gloria received from her own mother and that she now gives to her chosen children. And it is driven by the love that Luchina has for her own teenage transgender daughter, Gia.

The film features an original song by trans activist and singer Shea Diamond and pop singer/songwriter Justin Tranter, who has penned hits for Lady Gaga, Dua Lipa, and Justin Bieber.

We spoke with Luchina about ‘Mama Gloria’ as she returns to the icon’s home town this week for screenings, how she came to first learn about Gloria Allen, and why storytelling has the power to change hearts and minds.

How did you first come across the story of Gloria Allen, and then decide to turn it into a film?

A dear friend of mine, E. Patrick Johnson, reached out to me because he learned that Gloria was looking for someone to help her with her memoir. I was a ghostwriter in a past life. But when I started reading about Gloria, and realized there had never been a documentary about her, I felt she needed to be seen and heard. As it turned out, my daughter and I were on our way to Chicago. We met Gloria and she spent the day with us, and the film felt like it was meant to be. 

You are holding screenings and panels during Transgender Awareness Week and on Transgender Day Of Remembrance. Why are stories of the trans community more important than ever? 

The trans community has never been more visible and yet the community faces escalating violence and greater discrimination. We have to keep humanizing the trans experience — and stories do that. These are members of our families, our communities, our workplaces, our country. For elders like Gloria, it’s important to recognize that they came before and paved the way for the visibility today. We need to honor them while they are still here. 

As a Black transgender icon today, Gloria Allen overcame a lot of trauma throughout her life to become the trailblazer she is today. Why is it imperative to shed a light on the violence and trauma often experienced by trans folks? 

The violence is real and it’s gotten worse. This year is actually the deadliest on record for transgender people, and most of the violent deaths are Black trans women. If we don’t see it and acknowledge that it’s happening, we can’t attack the problem. That’s why it filled my heart to see thousands of people marching in cities across the country this summer in support of Black trans lives. I love that we have a president-elect who gets it and is going to make the transgender community one of the priorities of his administration. 

Gloria Allen at the About Face Theatre

Can you tell me more about the charm school she pioneered, which became the inspiration behind ‘Charm’ the play? 

Gloria never imagined making it past 40, let alone 60 or 70, but she believes it was the love and support that she received from the women in her family — her mother, grandmother and aunt — that carried her through. When she was in her 60s, she noticed that the young homeless trans kids in her neighborhood in Chicago seemed to lack that same love and support. So she started a charm school, where she could pass along lessons on makeup and manners that she received from the women in her family. But mostly it was a place where she could give herself to the young people who showed up, so they could be seen and heard and loved.

There is this juxtaposition of progression of the trans experience in Hollywood with shows like ‘Pose’ and ‘Transparent’, yet we continue to see regression in politics with trans bathroom bills and other exclusionary policies. How can films like ‘Mama Gloria’ continue to push for change and inclusion in all aspects of society? 

Storytelling, especially visual stories, have the power to bring you into another person’s life, to literally walk in their shoes for an hour or 90 minutes. Authentic, straight-from-the-heart stories like ‘Mama Gloria’ have the power to change hearts and minds — and, ultimately save lives. 

Your own daughter Gia is a trans teen and has become a powerful spokesperson at events for Human Rights Campaign and being featured in mainstream media stories! How has being a parent of a trans teen informed your experience as a filmmaker and storyteller? 

Gia inspires me in so many ways, just by being her authentic self and so courageously sharing herself with the world. I made the film that she and our family needed to see before she came out, and the film that I hope she’ll return to as she goes out into the world. Gia is very aware of the violence that Black trans women face and the narrative that they don’t live past 40 years old. I want Gloria’s story to be Gia and her generation’s connection to aging — so that they can see themselves growing old and having a long, meaningful life. I also hope that I am changing the world through storytelling as Gia moves through it, because I want it to be a better place for her and others. 

Gloria Allen hugs a young trans woman.

The film also features an original song by trans activist Shea Diamond and songwriter Justin Tranter. Can you tell us more about the song and how Shea and Justin got involved? 

My editor Caroline Berler was the one who introduced me to Shea’s “American Pie,” which I loved. I reached out to Shea by email to see about using the song for the film, and she had an even better idea — to write an original song with Justin Tranter, who she has partnered with on several tracks. The song was inspired by Janet Mock, who presents Gloria an award at the start of the film, and says, “You stand, in the presence of a legend.” “Presence of a Legend,” which Shea and Justin wrote and Shea performs, is not just an ode to Gloria, but an anthem for the entire trans community. It’s a powerful song, and we are working on submitting it for Oscar consideration.

As today is Transgender Day Of Remembrance, what message do you hope audiences will take away from watching ‘Mama Gloria’? 

We must honor the transgender people who are no longer with us, whose lives have been lost, often to violence. But we must also celebrate those who are still with us, like Gloria Allen. We have to give as much attention to trans people in life, as we do to those in death, so that we can begin to shift the narrative and reality for our transgender community. 

You can learn more about ‘Mama Gloria’, and find out about upcoming screenings or request a screening by clicking here.

Gloria Allen in church

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