*originally posted October 9, 2009
“I never expected I’d be 100 years old. It didn’t even come to my mind.”
So said Ruth Ellis, who lived to be 101, and is credited with being the oldest known lesbian and LGBT civil rights activist. She was said to be a tiny woman with a huge heart, who stood tall for gay men and women, and for African-Americans.She was born in Springfield Illinois, the daughter of former Tennessee slaves. Her father set a good example for Ruth by becoming the first African=-American mail carrier in Springfield; from him, Ruth learned she could do anything. And she learned to stand up for herself.
And she saw so much in her one-hundred years; she witnessed great strides for the African-American community and the LGBT community. She was out and proud and loud and told it like it was to whoever would listen. Ruth Ellis lived her life the way she wanted to live her life.
We could all learn from that example.
When a race riot erupted in Springfield in 1908 after a black man was accused--falsely, as it turned out--of raping a white woman, many black families fled under the threat of having their homes burned down. Not so, Ruth's father, Charles; he stood guard with a sword he owned as a member of the Knights of Pythias. Though the violence raged for two days before the National Guard could end it, the Ellis family and their home came through the ordeal safely.
At Springfield High School, a "white" school, Ruth once again found herself on the outside; very few African-Americans received, or wanted, a secondary education.
"I didn't mix very well with the white girls. Or they didn't mix with me. In gym class, the teacher would have to hold my hand because some of the girls didn't want to hold hands with someone Black."
That gym teacher was one of her first crushes.
Realizing her attraction to women at an early age, Ruth also believed her eldest brother, Charles Jr., was gay though he never said anything to her about it. Homosexuality was not the kind of issue families discussed in those days, but as Ruth looked back on her life she believes her father knew she was a lesbian and accepted it.
"I think [my father] was kind of glad that I had a woman instead of a man because he was afraid I'd come home with a baby. If you had a baby in those days, you'd have to leave home. And he wanted me home."
After high school, Ruth worked as a nursemaid and cook for a local family before finding a job in a print shop, where she learned how to set type and operate the presses. In 1937, at the encouragement of her brother, Ruth moved to Detroit where she could make a better living for herself. Soon she was joined by Ceceline "Babe" Franklin.
After learning her trade, Ruth and Babe bought a home in Detroit and Ruth set up her own printing business in the front room, becoming one of the first women in Michigan to own and operate her own printing business.
In order to help with the expenses or owning her own business, Ruth rented a room in her home to ä gay fellow." Homosexuality was a very secretive thing in those days, but Ruth soon realized she could create a safe place for gays and lesbians to meet. She and Franklin were soon opening their home to the LGBT community, giving parties and safety to everyone. their home soon became known as "the gay spot." Gay men and lesbians came from as far away as Flint, Michigan and Cleveland, Ohio to attend the gatherings because they felt welcome in Ellis and Franklin's home.
"On weekends, that would be the place to come because there weren't many places unless it was in someone's home. So they'd come down, and we'd play the piano and dance, and some of them would play cards."
Ruth and Babe, together for some thirty-five years, proved that opposites attract. Babe loved to drink and gamble and carouse, while Ruth loved concerts and going to church. In the 70s, Babe Franklin left Detroit for the suburbs so she could be close to her job; Ruth stayed in the city, but they remained a couple, staying the night in each other's homes until Franklin died in 1975.
Ruth moved into the downtown Wolverine Senior Center, where she befriended other residents and helped them out by going grocery shopping and running errands for them. At age seventy-nine, Ellis enrolled in a self-defense class taught by a woman, Jay Spiro, who she correctly suspected was a lesbian. Spiro, the first white lesbian whom Ellis had met, introduced her to a community of younger gay women, who immediately embraced her.
Spiro took Ruth to lesbian bars, something Ruth had never done, and she began to meet more lesbians, openly out lesbians, who loved to hear Ruth's story. Soon she became an icon in the Detroit LGBT community.
Her new friends watched out for her and when Ruth wanted to attend a conference on African-American LGBT issues in California, these new friends raised the money to send her there. She traveled to Provincetown, to the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival and, in 1999, at age 100, led the annual Dyke March in San Francisco, serenaded by thousands of women singing "Happy Birthday" in honor of her centennial.
At a time when most have passed on, or are waiting to pass on, Ruth Ellis began a second career as a public speaker, addressing everyone from community and school groups to forums at the University of Michigan, Wayne State University, and Michigan State University. She imparted several messages to her audiences, the first of which was that they should be proud of and honest about themselves.
"I was always out of the closet. I didn't have to come out."
She encouraged young people to reach out to the elderly, to get to know at least one, to be a true, generous, and respectful friend to the person, and to benefit from learning about his or her individual story. Ruth's story, which she proudly told, was greatly appreciated by the students who had never before been in the presence of such an elderly person, let alone one who frankly stated that she had enjoyed a sexual encounter at the age of ninety-five.
A lifelong church-goer, Ruth saw her own church evolve over the years, from a place where gays and lesbians were ostracized to one that embraced a gay day, a gay guest minister. Through Ruth's eyes you can see progress has been made, giant steps have been taken.
We have come a long way.
In 1999, Ruth presided at the ribbon-cutting ceremony to open the Ruth Ellis Center, a haven for homeless LGBTQ youth in Detroit. The facility offers a Drop-In Center, the Ruth's House Emergency Shelter, and the Ruth's House Transitional Living Program, an eighteen-month course in independent-living skills for people aged sixteen to twenty-one. The Street Outreach Program is quite successful in bringing young people into the Center, where they can not only have their basic needs for food, shelter, and hygiene met, but can also receive education about HIV/AIDS and other diseases and can be paired with a mentor to help them develop pride and self-esteem and to become self-sufficient.
In the fall of 2000, due to heart problems, Ruth Ellis was hospitalized. But Ruth wanted to live out her days at home, and so she returned to her apartment, where she was attended around the clock by loving friends until she died in her sleep on October 5.
Ruth Ellis always said she was an "an ordinary little woman . . . . I'm not that important," but she stood tall for a century, standing for herself and for others, for what she believed and what was right. In that way, she is the biggest woman who ever lived.
And, just before she left us, Ruth Ellis imparted just a bit more of her wisdom on what the LGBT community needs to do in the 21st century.
"The only way we can get anyplace is by being together....Gay people have to get in there just like anybody else. We have to work. We need more businesses. Scientists, chemists, things like that. If we could get more gay people in our politics, I think it would help a lot....And be honest and caring. Try to love people. Have a happy life if you can in this crazy world."
We're trying, Ruth, we're trying in your name and the names of all who came before us.
|On This Day In LGBT History|
October 9, 1806 – African-American scientist Benjamin Banneker died.
October 9-11, 1976 – A National Lesbian Conference hosted by Lesbian Organization of Ottawa.
October 9, 1985 – New York City mayor Ed Koch wrote a letter to the New York County American Legion asking them to reconsider their decision not to allow the Gay Veterans to participate in the annual Veterans Day Parade. The American Legion did not respond to the request.
October 9, 1987 – The US National AIDS Network held a ceremony to honor volunteers in the fight against AIDS. Among those present were Gary Collins, actresses Morgan Fairchild and Whoopi Goldberg, playwright Harvey Fierstein, and Congressman Gerry Studds.
October 9, 1993 – Evangelist Billy Graham apologized for saying AIDS may be a judgment of God for sin. The remark was made during a sermon in Columbus Ohio. “I don’t believe that, and I don’t know why I said it.”
October 9, 1993 – Episcopal bishop E. Otis Charles, 67, who had been bishop of Utah from 1971-1986, publicly came out.
October 9, 1998 – South Africa’s highest court repealed the country’s sodomy law and ruled that the two men who challenged the law could file for monetary damages and have their records cleared.
October 9, 1998 – The Netherlands sanctioned adoption by same-sex couples as long as they meet the same criteria required of heterosexual couples.