Gloria Allen, 71, is a transgender African-American woman who is seen as an icon by many in her community. She volunteered for years teaching a charm-school class at Chicago’s Center on Halsted, trying to teach transgender and gender nonconforming youths how to survive and to believe in themselves.
“If we were all the same way in this world, we would be boring,” Allen told The Root. “When God created mankind and womankind, we were created in his image. So that means if you don’t like this person because this person is black or white … or this guy wants to be a girl or this girl wants to be a guy, something is wrong. We’re not giving God his due respect, because God made us out of love. That’s my theory on it.”
Allen, a retired licensed practical nurse at the University of Chicago, started teaching etiquette at the Center on Halsted. She said that she was having lunch with other LGBTQ senior citizens—whom she calls a group of “seasoned women”—when a group of scantily dressed young girls sashayed in, being loud and gyrating around the tables, and she was not having it.
“I approached them and said, ‘Don’t you see these young kids here? They watch this and formulate ideas that we are all like this!’ They didn’t give me any hassle about it and said, ‘OK, Mama Gloria,’” Allen recalled. “Then a bell went off or something. They need a charm school here. They need some charm and they need some class.”
That is exactly what she set out to do—offering help in what may seem an unusual manner to transgender youths of color, who face even more challenges than others in the LGBTQ community because of both gender and racial discrimination.
“Some of the young people were homeless and didn’t have a meal … or knew where their next meal was coming from,” Allen said, adding that she often got up in the morning to cook meals for them. Along with teaching her students how to dress and carry themselves, she taught them about safe sex; dealing with physical, alcohol and drug abuse; and how to take the proper hormones when preparing for sex-reassignment surgery.
“Some came from homes—they had parents—but their parents weren’t understanding of their gender and some were tossed out,” she said. “They need to know you don’t do a child like that. You don’t do anybody like that because we are all different.”
Allen stopped teaching the sometimes-raucous class a couple of years ago, but she remains a mentor. This month the Washington, D.C.-based Mosaic Theater Co. is telling Allen’s story with the comedy-drama Charm. Written by Philip Dawkins, who sat in on Allen’s classes, it tells the story of the fictional Mama Darleena Andrews, a character Allen says is a dead-on portrait of herself. She saw the Jeff Award-winning version of the production by Chicago’s Northlight Theater. It has also been staged in Minneapolis and Los Angeles.
“I thought it was actually me on the stage,” Allen raved. “It was such a great thing because I had such amazing people in the class and I was happy that I’m able to give back. … I’m so elated over the idea that I made … such a great accomplishment for the transgender and gay community.”
So is Natsu Onoda Power, who is directing the production in the nation’s capital. She feels very strongly that transgender people are often not allowed to speak with their own voices telling their stories. Addressing the crowd on opening night Jan. 8, Onoda Power made it clear: This makes her angry.
“When we speak about the lives of trans women of color, trans men of color, we must locate them in the center. They can speak for themselves,” Onoda Power said. “They don’t have to be speaking through mainstream cis culture.”
An upcoming New York City production of Charm is specifically seeking transgender and gender-nonconforming performers for its production set for this fall. Onoda Power did the same in Washington, D.C., after getting some feedback on the importance of having a transgender performer in the lead role. B’Ellana Duquesne, who identifies as gender fluid (she sometimes presents as Jack Eng), says there is a bit of controversy involved. She plays the lead character, Mama.
“As an actor, all I want is a shot, and if I can deliver at least I know that you looked at me,” Duquesne told The Root. “If it were the other way around … am I disqualified to play a cis woman if I can play that role? It works both ways.”
Another bit of drama is an ongoing discussion in the transgender community similar to the debate among African Americans over the privilege or detriments of light or dark skin tones. Charm includes characters who swing back and forth between their male and female identities, and at least one who is still trying to decide which, if any, single gender to join.
“I lived as a man for a long time. … If I go to the bank to apply for a car loan, I wear my male clothes. Trans women who need to present as female 100 percent of the time, they don’t have that option,” Duquesne explained. “The one thing I love about this play is that it shows the wide variation of gender expression. … Charm is about acceptance. It’s about everyone else feeling comfortable. … It’s a message that needs to be stressed at this point in our culture.”
But transgender people—particularly those of color—are often not accepted by what some might call mainstream society. In a study (pdf), the Human Rights Campaign notes that in the first 10 months of 2015, at least 21 people—nearly all transgender women of color—lost their lives to violence. The Washington-based National Center for Transgender Equality found in a 2015 survey (pdf) that African-American, Latino and American Indian transgender people are up to three times more likely to be living in poverty than the U.S. population, and the unemployment rate among people of color is nearly five times the U.S. jobless rate.
“There are a lot of racism problems, both individual and systemic, in our country, and when a community is already at risk like the trans community, those issues are going to be exacerbated or amplified among communities of color,” said NCTE’s Rebecca Kling. But she added that shows like Charm help promote understanding from an American public that mostly doesn’t think it knows any transgender people.
“Looking at the marriage-equality movement, the same thing is true in the trans rights movement: Knowing someone who is of that community makes you more likely to support that community. Intuitively, emotionally, that makes sense,” she said.
Both Gloria Allen and Duquesne are worried about what a Trump administration could mean for the battle for transgender rights.
“I think after the election, there’s a certain element that feels free to express a lot of negative thoughts that have been pent up for a long time,” Duquesne mused. “I think there will be a tone that is harmful to us, but I don’t think it’s something we can’t overcome if we just continue to fight for personal liberties.”
Back in Chicago, Allen said she is just happy that people are hearing her story about what it is like to be a transgender person.
“Sometimes it can be difficult and scary,” she told the Mosaic Theater Co. in a video interview, “and then sometimes it can be beautiful.”