Gloria Allen teaches at her Charm School at the Center on Halsted.
Learning how to sit like a lady or how to apply maquillage for daytime versus evening looks are just a few of the things "Mama Gloria" Allen, a 67-year-old-retired nurse, teaches her young, transgender pupils at Charm School, the popular etiquette class at Center on Halsted in Boystown.
But as a transgender woman with a treasure trove of experiences to draw from, Allen ("Mama Gloria" to her students) offers pearls of wisdom beyond makeup tips and good manners, including life-saving advice on safe sex, alcohol and drug abuse, and how to locate a safe bed for the night.
Charm School is in session every Monday evening at Center on Halsted, where around a dozen transgender youths gather informally around a table to ask questions and exchange ideas in a safe, understanding environment.
"Many of the students are young, trans people of color who have been displaced from their homes and communities because of their gender identity or expression," said Tom Elliott, director of public relations for Center on Halsted. "Mama Gloria is a great role model for the students and sometimes she takes it upon herself to be a parent for her students who may not have the same kind of positive support from their family."
"A lot of my students are in the streets from sunrise to sundown, and a lot of these kids are homeless," Allen said. "Many families just throw their children out to the wolves where they are fending for themselves. I try to show them that it is possible to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and that they can be anything they want to be if they put their mind to it."
Allen's medical background is especially useful when speaking to her students about everything from the importance of personal hygiene to the dangers of doubling up on hormones in preparation for sexual reassignment surgery.
"A lot of the girls are doing things they shouldn't be doing," Allen said, referring to harmful behavior that sometimes includes doing sex-work in order to survive. "[Some of my students] will take the money and get themselves some black market silicon, and then they are back on the streets. But I tell them ‘How can you look beautiful when you are homeless?' They think it's cute. They want to look like Kim Kardashian or Nikki Minaj—but these people are making money, and they can afford it."
Monique, a former student of Allen's (the two are now close friends), admitted some students may not always be receptive to Allen's advice—at least at first.
"Some students can be very difficult and resist paying attention. But she tells the truth and what they need to know to survive and make it to [age] 40, 50 and 60," said Monique, who asked not to be identified by her last name.
"I listen to them, and they listen to me," Allen said. "I want them to open up to me. If they don't engage with me, I make sure to correct them."
"You know that old saying, ‘You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink," Allen asked with a twinkle in her eye. "Well, I take them to that well, and with me, they are going to drink that water!"
"I have students who have done well for themselves," said Allen when asked about Charm School "graduates." "One girl, who I met in 2009, she's 22 now, she's gone on to college, and she is living in Hyde Park, and I am so proud of her. When she first came to Charm School she was silly, loud, and she wouldn't listen, but I put her in her place—I am really proud of her."
"Mama Gloria shows you how to behave yourself and how to act like a woman," Monique said.
"I tell the girls ‘you are beautiful' and that it doesn't take that much to look beautiful—you just need to have a beautiful spirit and to learn to love yourself. I [also] tell the girls to ‘look in your mirror—and if something doesn't look right, then don't put it on,' Allen said with a good-natured laugh. "All you really need is a simple little black dress, and maybe some pearls, or a broach, or scarf."
If there was a graduate-level Charm School course, Allen said the curriculum would probably be centered around the qualities of a good role model.
"Michelle Obama is a good role model because she carries herself with such dignity and pride, and I love her for that," Allen said. "Trans kids can really look up to her. I had role models when I was coming up, but many of these girls today do not. Charm is about being beautiful on the inside and out and the ability to warm up a room when you walk into it, and taking that and being an example for others. And who knows? We might have one of these trans girls as the First Lady someday!"
Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted St.
7 to 9 p.m. Mondays
For information, call 773.472.6469 ext. 452 or visit the Charm School website.
Tony Peregrin is a RedEye special contributor.
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