Chicago’s “Mama Gloria” Is Teaching LGBT Teens The ABCs Of Etiquette

For many gays, lesbians and trans people, accepting who you are means chucking the standards of mainstream society. But retired nurse Gloria Allen doesn’t think that means young LGBTs have to sacrifice things like politeness, deportment and civility. Allen, a 66-year-old trans woman, is running an unconventional charm school out of Chicago’s Center on Halsted, where students learn how to speak like a gentleman and sit like a lady—whether they were born one or not.

“I may be sounding old-fashioned, but I would see these young people wearing negligee-type clothes on the street and I would say, ‘How could they leave the house looking like that?’” Allen, who often goes by “Mama Gloria,” tells the Chicago Tribune. “When you’re a part of a minority community, what you do reflects the whole,” she said. “It may not be fair, but that’s reality.”

Her class, which meets Thursday evenings at the center, offers lessons in makeup, dress, diet and exercise, proper dining etiquette and conversation skills. (No profanity, for example.)

Some might think Allen is setting the movement back by telling teens to cross their legs and wear conservative clothing. But she also offers practical, sometimes life-saving advice about safe sex, drug and alcohol abuse and transitioning.  Allen cautioned one trans girl who was doubling up on her hormone treatments: “You’re putting your body, your liver and kidneys, at risk… You’ve been a boy for 19 years. You can’t turn into a girl overnight. Be patient. I don’t want you to hurt yourself.”

Mama Gloria sounds like a wonderful blend of Miss Manner, RuPaul and Auntie Mame. We kind of wish we had her in our lives when we were growing up. We might have avoided that whole sloppy bleach-blonde and flannel-shirt grunge look of the 1990s.

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  • Fitz

    As an older man, I have given tidbits to younger gay guys, but nothing formal like this… and I find her inspiring.

  • Charlie in Charge

    Decorum has many benefits.

  • Clueless

    Lovely !

  • Adam Conway

    This is potentially problematic. I suppose it all depends on the context she puts these things in. She’s right– there are social advantages to good manners and a more professional appearance, and a lot of the people she works with at the Center on Halsted might find it easier to get a job, make a good impression, or avoid conflict and violence if they appeared more polished and conservative. But it’s elitist, stigmatizing, and hurtful to say there’s a “right way” or a “wrong way” to be a boy/girl/whatever and that if you don’t meet certain socially-constructed standards you are garbage/less than. I hope she consciously portrays her charm lessons as useful tools in particular social situations, not standards you must meet to be worthy of respect. Because otherwise, she’s just whitewashing difference, something from which we once grew great strength.

  • Adam Conway

    If you read the huffington post article about this story, they quote Mama Gloria telling transgender women not to “sit down like men.” So, yeah, I guess you can throw me in with those “some” who think she may be “setting the movement back.”

  • Adam Conway

    @Adam Conway: @Adam Conway: *chicago tribune article, not huffington post.

  • Pete n SFO

    I love it…

    Sometimes I wish young & older were more integrated in gay society. Too often older gays turn everything sexual (constant obvious double-entendre, etc). I want to have friendships w/ older gays, but find myself avoiding the situation b/c I don’t want to deal w/ being hit-on.

    Don’t snark me, despite the tone, it’s true. A lot of younger people could benefit from cross-generational friendships & the wisdom that comes with- even if, as Conway points out, you may have to take some suggestions w/ a grain of salt.

    Personally, I would love to have someone like Mama Gloria in my life & I’m happy that young trans-kids, who face an inordinate amount of pressure, have someone like her to turn to.

  • Ogre Magi

    @Pete n SFO: I think you are right

  • Eli

    I’m all for teaching people etiquette, I’m just outraged that there’s supposed to be a moral component to it. Dressing and acting right for job interviews and in the workplace will be advantageous, but it’s an act. You should master that act, but you also shouldn’t associate with people who want to control the way you dress and talk, unless you’re paid to do it. If someone doesn’t think I’m a “gentleman” because I happen to like swearing, they can get lost. There’s no reason to believe that it’s objectively better not to swear, except in contexts where swearing could be dangerous because you’re around weird Neanderthal prudes who are actually going to charge like rhinos if you reference sex or fecal matter. “Fat” isn’t considered a swear word, and yet it’s so much more harmful to call someone that than to use any non-slur curse words.
    And you should dress in a way that makes you look beautiful without making you too cold. If someone thinks that the way you dress is uncouth, they don’t have to wear those clothes. It’s not a crime to want to evoke desire, and to teach people that it’s “right” (as opposed to “profitable”) to act like a “lady” or “gentleman” creates a fake morality that isn’t really based on logic. All you really need to know is don’t be a jerk. Everything else is conforming to society because it’s too much effort to change it.

  • Fitz

    Pete- I agree. It goes the other way too. So exhausted by newbie gays wanting me to be their daddy. But I do want to share what little wisdom I have acquired. And friendship. I sorta do it at the gym, but again… there is that anxiety of “is he going to think I am hitting on him/ is he going to hit on me”, which I freakin hate. Just because someone is nice to you does not mean that they want to screw with you.

  • Conrad

    When the axe came into the forrest, the trees said, “Look, the handle is one of us!”

  • jim

    @adam conway…great post, i rarely see the term whitewashing as a response to a blog. hit me up speedosrhot at yahoo xoxo

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