Gloria Allen's life story is subject of a new film from director Luchina Fisher called Mama Gloria

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When Gloria Allen opened a charm school for gay and transgender kids, many of whom were living on the streets of Chicago, she "wanted to teach them to be proud."

Allen also wanted to be sure they were safe and looked after. "I cooked for them, listened to them and taught them etiquette," she tells PEOPLE in this week's Pride Issue. "I thought of them as my chosen children." 

Her big heart (she's known to hand out any extra cash she has to those in need) made her a local legend — and the subject of Mama Gloria, an award-winning documentary now streaming on PBS as part of the show Afropop: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange, as well as World Channel.

Growing up as a transgender girl "was rough in the '50s and '60s, but I was tough," says the 75-year-old trans pioneer. "My mother and grandmother accepted me, but some of my siblings were ashamed of me."

mama gloria and her neighbors
(L-R) Carolyn Davis, Gloria Allen, Terry Maddry
| Credit: Danielle Scruggs

It would take several decades (and surviving several abusive relationships) before she found family anew in Chicago's Townhall Apartments, an LGBTQ senior living facility, with her neighbors Terry Maddry, 63, who lives two floors below, and Carolyn Davis, 64, a home heath aide who lives down the hall.

"They are both my lifelines," says Allen.

Sometimes literally. Allen has Type 2 diabetes and back in 2019, it was Maddry who found her unconscious on the floor of her apartment after her blood sugar fell dangerously low and she fell and hit her head.

"He called the ambulance and saved my life," says Allen.

For more Mama Gloria, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

Together, the three friends, along with other seniors in the building, have regular potluck dinners ("I can't eat it but my banana pudding is to die for," says Allen), dance parties and movie nights.

"It's a family," says Davis. "And she gives great beauty tips!" 

Maddry regularly picks up groceries for his friends in the building when he's out, and Allen jokes that she calls him her "Georgia Peach."

"It really is family here," explains Davis. "We always have someone to talk to when we're down. Mama Gloria has brought so much joy to this building. We thank God for her."

The feeling goes both ways. As Allen says, "We should not be treated differently because of who we love and who we are. That's what the LGBTQ community teaches you. Stand tall and stand proud. We are always here for each other."

The message inspired Mama Gloria director Luchina Fisher to tell Allen's life story in the documentary.

"I was so struck by how Gloria's mother and grandmother supported her long before the word transgender even existed," says Fisher. "I believe that love and support is what has carried her through her life, the same love and support she passed on to her chosen children."

"It's also the same love and support I have for my daughter, Gia, who came out as transgender before her 13th birthday," she adds. "I want her and her generation to know about the people like Gloria who came before them. Gloria is not just a connection to their past but to their future. I want them to know they can live a long and meaningful life like Gloria's."