LGBT History Month – L
To celebrate LGBT History Month I’m bringing together a historical biography of 4 LGBT people from history. I’ll be splitting the acronym into 4 parts, publishing a short piece on an important Lesbian woman, Gay man, Bisexual person and Trans person.
This week I’m starting with ‘L’.
Ruth Ellis (1899 – 2000) was an African American woman who became widely known for being the oldest surviving openly lesbian woman of her time. She was known not only for being out and proud during a time where it was difficult and indeed dangerous for LGBT people to live so openly, particularly in the United States as an African American woman, but also for her tireless activism for LGBT rights in America.
Ruth was born in Springfield, Illinois in the Summer of 1899. She was the youngest child and only daughter of four. To give some historical context – Ellis’ father had been born into slavery; this was not a time when African American people were afforded the same rights as white people.
Even more astonishingly Ruth came out as a lesbian in approximately 1915. While laws relating to homosexuality vary between states in the US, sexual activity between consenting adults of the same sex has only been legal nationwide since 2003. As such, being openly homosexual at this time was a particularly brave thing for Ruth to do.
Ruth even graduated high school in 1919, a feat which is particularly impressive considering that at this time less than 7% of African Americans graduated. Shortly after graduation, Ruth met Ceciline Franklin, affectionately known as “Babe”, a woman who would go on to be her partner of 30 years.
Ellis later recalled
“Because I was 10 years older than she, I almost shut the door in her face … she told me if I ever left Springfield she’d come to where I was. I don’t think it was real love. I just think it was time for me to get away.”
They eventually moved to Detroit, Michigan and bought a house together. This house soon became a sanctuary for LGBT people in the city and soon became a central location for African American lesbian and gay underground parties. The ground floor of this house would soon become a storefront for Ellis’ business. Here is where Ellis again became yet another American first – the first American woman to own a Printing business in the city. On opening the business having previously worked for another printer in Detroit she would later say “I was working for a printer and I said to myself, if I can do this for him, how come I can’t do it for myself?” Ellis was able to support herself by printing stationery, posters and flyers alongside raffle tickets for churches, small businesses, and other individuals.
While running a business was consuming much of Ellis’ energy her relationship with Babe was not running quite so smoothly.
“It worked pretty well for a while,” she said. “We were just two opposite people. She liked to drink, go to bars, gamble. I never did all that. Mine was concerts and things like that, going to church and church things.”
After 30 years they eventually broke up. However, Ellis spoke fondly of her relationship with Babe.
“We went our separate ways, but we stayed together for over 30 years … that’s what I want these girls to do now, instead of breaking up after two or three months.”
Ceciline “Babe” Franklin died in 1973
Since then Ellis was introduced to the wider LGBT community in the 1970s and became an advocate for lesbians and gays and in particular LGBT people from ethnic minorities. Towards the end of her life, she became something of a celebrity, appearing as a regular feature in the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (an international feminist music festival which was held every August from 1976 – 2015) and even led the San Francisco Dyke March in her 100th Year in 1999. Her life was also the subject of a documentary “Living with Pride: Ruth Ellis at 100”
In the year 2000, the Ruth Ellis Centre, a ground-breaking youth shelter, transitional living and outreach program founded in 1999 was opened. Ellis attended the ribbon-cutting of the projects first drop-in centre in 2000.
Speaking of the Millennium in what would be her final year of life Ellis proclaimed “ Everybody seems to be sceptical about this [year] 2000 change,”. Ellis, however, was not fazed. “I’ve got my oil lamp and groceries.”
Ellis died peacefully in her sleep at her Detroit home on October 5th, 2000, at the ripe old age of 101.
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