This is a time when we all need a Mama Gloria in our lives. Gloria Allen, also known as “Mama Gloria”, is a 70-something transgender woman who’s paved and is paving the way for the younger trans generation. Her story links to a history that has been forgotten, connecting to the trans community that was out and proud in the 1940s and 1950s on Chicago’s South Side. Gloria’s story was brought to the attention of journalist and filmmaker Luchina Fisher through an article shared by a friend about a charm school that Gloria had started in the Center on Halsted in Chicago. Luchina was struck by Gloria and her story by learning that she had a mother and grandmother who supported her transition, which preceded Stonewall. The fact that Luchina has a daughter who identifies herself as transgender made Gloria’s story resonate on an even deeper level.
I was honored to speak with Luchina during the Chicago International Film Festival about her directorial debut centering on the story of Gloria Allen, the impact Gloria is making for the younger trans community, and how her journey demonstrates the importance of being seen and heard onscreen. Gloria’s story is timely in light of this year, which had the highest reported number of trans people being murdered. 2020 has been a dark year. Gloria’s story brings a little light into this darkness, and we’re grateful that through watching “Mama Gloria,” we can be in the presence of her light. I leave you with Gloria’s words, “I’m a good person. I am a trans person. And I have a beautiful spirit.”
Visit the film’s site to keep up to date about upcoming screenings and releases.
REBECCA MARTIN: What brought you to this project?
LUCHINA FISHER: It started with my dear friend E. Patrick Johnson, who is the Dean of the School of Communications at Northwestern. He has a film that is out right now called “Making Sweet Tea” about Black gay men in the south. Patrick reached out to me with this very interesting text that said, “I’ve found your next project.” I was intrigued immediately. And then he sent me a Chicago Tribune story about Gloria and her charm school. I was like, ‘oh my gosh, this is incredible.’ What particularly struck me was that she had the support from her mother and grandmother, knowing that she grew up in the ’40s and the ’50s, and she transitioned before Stonewall. I thought that was amazing.
It was especially striking for me because I am the mother of a daughter who identifies as transgender. My daughter Gia was fifteen at the time, and she and I were on our way to Chicago because Gia is a Champion. She is the member of The GenderCool Project, which is Chicago-based. It’s a non-profit storytelling campaign that talks about who transgender people are, not what they are. It is a fabulous organization, and we were one of the first families to be a part of it. That was our big trip to Chicago for Coming Out Day. It was two years ago around this time and we headed there to have Gia speak. She spoke at three companies, Citibank, Conagra, and All State along with other Champions to tell their stories.
I got word to Gloria that I would be in Chicago that weekend, and asked if it was possible to try and meet her. As it turned out, we were going to visit the Center on Halsted, and Gloria’s residence is literally on the same block in the senior building, the Town Hall apartments. It was totally serendipity that our universes aligned. I believe that it was just meant to be. We had an instant connection. After that initial meeting, I felt like Gloria was going to be in our life. I think she felt the same way. She has so many kids that she’s adopted. I count myself among them, although she sometimes calls me her lovely younger sister. [laughs]
A month later I was back filming in Chicago, and Gloria just opened her life up to me. Because of her openness, I feel the film feels so honest and real. She didn’t hold anything back.
MARTIN: The history you piece together around Mama Gloria’s story is fascinating to me, with the Drag Balls, and the trans community in the ‘40s and ‘50s. That part of history, or at least Chicago history, I’ve never seen before, or even knew it existed. How was it digging deep like that?
FISHER: I knew that Gloria had lived this particular history, and I knew that she was probably the best person to tell her history. We see that she is an amazing storyteller. I really wanted to put her front and center, and almost make it feel like we, the viewers, the audience, were in her charm school. Because that is how she related often to her kids by sharing her life and her stories. And she listened to them as well.
I thought it’s so important for people to know Gloria’s story. I was just thinking about my daughter being one of the most important audiences. I wanted Gia to know that there were people before her who identified as trans or queer or unusual, and were open about it, and lived openly. I wanted her to know that history.
When I lived in Chicago I don’t think I knew about the balls, because the ball scene had kind of gone away by the 80s. These balls are what you may think of as the same scene that Pose shows, the New York scene that grew out of Harlem, or from the 1990 film “Paris is Burning”. But Chicago was doing things well before.
MARTIN: I had no idea.
FISHER: Chicago has a long history of these clubs on the South Side where there were female impersonators. That’s how they identified themselves then. A number of them probably were trans or would have identified that way if given the chance. And some do tell their stories later. You can find those stories in the archives in the Chicago libraries.
When I started digging about the balls in Chicago, I was just like, ‘I need to find this information and I need to find these images.’ There’s this one website online called OutHistory. The site has really sought out to preserve some of this history in the US from Black LGBTQ communities in particular. They did have a section on Bronzeville, so I knew there were images. I just didn’t know how to find them.
So I was digging and digging, tracking people who had posted in this OutHistory site. Ultimately I struck gold. I forget what led me to the Chicago Public Library, but it’s the location on the South Side, the Woodson library. I struck gold when I visited The Vivian Harsh collection at the Woodson library.
I just happened to get the right researcher on the phone, and they said, “we do have something like what you’re looking for here. And it’s not listed under LGBTQ, and not listed under trans.” They said, “I think it’s listed under “Finnie’s Ball”, which dates back to the ‘30s.”
They had images that were taken by a photographer who worked for the Chicago Defender, Tony Rhoden. When I got into that library, opened these folders and started looking through these photos, I was just ready to scream. It was like finding treasure. It was so exciting to see, just in black and white, and in sepia. They were beautiful images of people in their wonderful ball gowns, posing, smiling, and being very proud. There was just this sense of being out and open which is amazing because we often think of that period being a closeted time.
And the fact that the Black press were covering those balls is amazing, and were covering those clubs, and those night club fares. Petite Swanson recorded a song about all of this. And I wanted that song. I want people to hear those folks, to see them, and see that they existed. That is part of my daughter’s history, part of the South Side history, part of the Black trans and the LGBTQ community history, and it’s part of American history. I just felt that was very important to be able to show it so people can believe it. Because if you see it, you can believe it. I was so grateful that was preserved.
MARTIN: How special for Mama Gloria to see those pictures, and to have her history represented.
FISHER: It was so special. When she looked at the photos, she was like “everyone was so beautiful.” It was especially special for her to see pictures of her mother. She had not seen those outtakes of her mother posing for Jet when she did her centerfold picture in 1958. She was just blown away by that. Her mother was just gorgeous. Gloria said that she was the “Black Marilyn Monroe”, and she really was, just gorgeous.
You could see that maybe in another time Gloria’s mother could have had a dancing and an acting career. She did classes with the Katherine Dunham dance company and another company on the South Side of Chicago. Her mother was also in beauty pageants, and I looked through archives, something like “Miss Black America”. I found some images of her pageant in Philadelphia. All of those things Gloria treasured, and she was so grateful.
MARTIN: We touched a little on this in the beginning, but I’d like to talk more about the impact that Mama Gloria has on the younger trans community.
FISHER: Like you said earlier, Mama Gloria has this grandmotherly presence. Young people just take to her. They just do. That was apparent to me from the moment I met her and when she sat down and talked to our young people with the GenderCool project. It’s that way every time she enters the room with young folks, and it’s so beautiful. I think that’s what we need, we need that kind of cross-generation conversation. And that’s certainly what I hope will continue to take place with the film.
For young people who are just now starting to discover her story as we launch the film, the response on social media has been incredible. A lot of it is driven by young folks who are like, ‘wow, thank you Mama Gloria’. Some of them are trying to push for her to get a cameo on Pose.
MARTIN: That would be amazing!
FISHER: Now there are these beautiful and amazing “out” actors and young folks. But she’s the one that really paved the way for them. Ultimately her message to them is that you can grow old too. To feel that you have a future.
Too often right now, Black trans women especially are aware of how they are under attack and how likely they are to be discriminated against. They have higher suicide rates. They have higher homicide rates. This year particularly we have surpassed the worst year for homicides. The Human Rights campaign started keeping track of transgender killings, and it’s already been the deadliest year. There is this belief within the Black transgender community, especially Black Trans women, that they will not live past 40. And it’s terrifying how this belief is so strong. It’s a shadow hanging over our community. Even my daughter is aware of it. And that troubles me.
So I really wanted Gloria to speak to that generation, and say that you can have a long and meaningful life. It does start with support, honestly. Support is crucial. If anything, I hope the parents and other family members will see how important it is to support our trans family members. That support starts at home. Because that’s the support I believe carried Gloria through her life. It’s what she is giving to her “chosen” children. Some of them are not getting that from home. Support is very important. And it’s not just that you have a long life, but you deserve to have a long life, you deserve to be here. As Gloria said, “I’m a good person. I am a trans person. And I have a beautiful spirit.” I feel that is the ultimate message that she leaves with the audience to remember.
MARTIN: Looking at the organizations that have supported the film, it’s impressive! Can you talk about groups that have stood behind this film?
FISHER: Absolutely. A film does not get made by one person. It’s such a team endeavor. And I’m very grateful. Originally I wanted to start out very small, very intimate. I thought it was just going to be a short. But as Stephen [Stephen J. Lewis, Director of Photography] and I were filming it, it became apparent that the story was so huge. Stephen kept saying to me, “I don’t know how you’re going to cut this film down.”
One of the first things I did was put together a little sizzle reel and I sent it to Yvonne Welbon, who is one of the producers. She made this film called “Living With Pride: Ruth Ellis @100”, about a Black lesbian she interviewed in her late nineties. Yvonne also took this very long historical approach to telling Ruth Ellis’ life. So I knew she would get Gloria, and she did. She has this organization called Sisters in Cinema, which is Chicago-based. Yvonne told me, “We’re about to do an inaugural documentary fellowship, and I’d like to have you apply for that.” I was delighted to be chosen as a documentary fellow.
MARTIN: That’s amazing.
FISHER: That was really the first support. It was so important. Always outside of the industry, you have to find those ways to get people within the industry into what you’re doing. She got me that attention. She also got me my editor, Caroline Berler, who directed and edited the film, “Dykes, Camera, Action!” (2018). Caroline was looking for a film to edit to get to that next level. She also got Gloria. She saw her in the same light that she saw her own Grandmother. So she came aboard.
From there getting into the Athena Film Festival, Works in Progress Program, was probably when things started to really take off. Early on I did have some interest from a major studio. They ultimately passed and I was like, ‘Oh my God, what do I do? How do I re-work the film?’
But sometimes you just need to sit and let things simmer. And that was hard for me. I’ve done television documentaries, and those projects get done in three months. I’m used to doing things on a deadline. And sometimes in independent film you just have to give it time to work its way out. So getting into Athena in March was when things really started to snowball. I pitched the film as part of the works in progress program to a room of potential funders and people within the industry. Black Public Media happened to be there. I had already been in touch with them. But now we were meeting in person, just before everything shut down.
It was perfect timing, and they were like, “I really want to encourage you to apply for some funding.” And they gave me the first major support. And that gave us the permission to say, “now we can finish this film. We know what to do.”
Around the time I was editing the film came the reckoning with the protests and outcry around George Floyd. People were reaching out from the industry and offering to help. One of those people is Isidore Bethel, who is an experienced editor. He offered to take a look at the cut and really gave us some feedback. That was so helpful and again got us to that next level. Suddenly all of the pieces came into place.
We’ve also had support from Women Make Movies as a fiscal sponsor from the beginning. They’ve also given great feedback on the film. It’s really just been a wonderful process. We’re still getting some support coming on board.
What’s wonderful about Black Public Media is that it has enabled the film to make its broadcast debut on PBS next year.
FISHER: Thank you, yeah for me that was a goal. I really wanted the film to be available to the trans community. I knew that for a lot of folks, streaming could be expensive, and out of reach. Public television is accessible to everyone. I really want this film to be seen, first and foremost.
MARTIN: Anything else?
FISHER: One more thing I wanted to add. I’m pushing for our original song, “Presence of a Legend,” sung by Shea Diamond, to be considered for the Oscars. Shea wrote the song with Justin Tranter.