Lesbian Icon Ruth Ellis

Ruth Ellis Lesbian history
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Ruth Ellis died 20 years ago, at age 101. She worked hard to open doors for lesbians. On the anniversary of her death, I can't help but wonder what she'd think of all the doors slamming shut on lesbians today.

Born in 1899, Black lesbian icon, Ruth Charlotte Ellis, was known for being the oldest surviving out lesbian. She died on October 5, 2000, at age 101. Ellis, also known for her activism, was celebrated towards the end of her life.

While the intention was to simply write about Ruth Ellis, nowadays, writing an article about a lesbian figure is never so simple. Like many of our historical figures, Ellis’ stories were finally told, only to later be deleted and rewritten by ‘LGBTQ’ media.

That which doesn’t serve the current revisionist narrative, gets buried… Here, it’s been unearthed.

screenshot_lesbian_history_ruth_ellis_and_her_Brothers
Screenshot: lesbian history, Ruth Ellis and her brothers

Ellis was born in Illinois, to parents who came into the world during the last years of slavery, in Tennessee. Her mother died when Ellis was 12 years old. Her father was the first Black mail carrier in Illinois. She had three older brothers.

“I went to a mixed school, and the colored children didn’t have the opportunities that the white children had.”

Ruth Ellis, Struggling for Our Rights

(deleted story here)

Ellis grew up without any lesbian role models. It was with the help of a psychology textbook that she was able to put a name to same-sex attraction. She came out as a lesbian in 1915, at age 16, and graduated High School in 1919, when less than seven percent of Black children graduated from a secondary school.

With her father and brothers, Ellis didn’t feel she had to hide her sexual orientation, and had girlfriends over to the house. “Nothing ever happened,” she once said, “Except one night I had this girlfriend stay, and we made a little too much noise. The only thing my father ever said to me was, ‘Next time you girls make that much noise, I will put you both out.’”

Her family lived in an integrated neighborhood, but experienced a great deal of discrimination. They were prohibited from entering restaurants, theaters, and other public locations. At school, Black children were denied opportunities.

“The city was prejudiced. We couldn’t go to the restaurants. Some theaters wouldn’t let you in at all. And if one theater happened to let you go, you’d have to sit in the back. In the opera house you’d have to sit to the last gallery, we called peanut heaven.”

Ruth Ellis, Struggling for Our Rights

(deleted story here)

In the 1920s, she met Ceciline “Babe” Franklin. She’d spend the next few decades with her.

Ellis moved to Detroit, Michigan, in 1937, after her brother Charles encouraged her to do so, because she’d make more money there. At a young age, Ellis worked as a nursemaid for white families in the area, and made $3 a week. When she moved, she found a job with a family in Highland Park, that paid $7 a week.

Franklin followed Ellis to Detroit, less than a year later. Eventually they bought a house. Ellis said, “When we first moved to the house we bought she knocked out the wall and put in a doorway. She did that by herself. She’d go out and bring the lumber in and do it herself. She did a lot of heavy work around the house. She had all the tools.”

“Ceciline ‘Babe’ Franklin was the first girl I ever stayed with and the last.”

Ruth Ellis, Sharing Our Lives

(deleted story here)
Ruth Ellis Babe Franklin Lesbian History
Screenshot: lesbian history, Ruth Ellis and Babe Franklin


There in Detroit, a neighbor taught her to type and run a press, and she eventually found a job in the printing field, at Waterfield & Heath.

“Being with Babe, didn’t affect my work at the printshop at all. They knew we were together. It didn’t make any difference to them.”

Ruth Ellis, Sharing Our Lives

(deleted story here)

When her brother Henry died, she gave up that position, after almost a decade, to start her own printing company with the money he left her. She and Franklin ran Ellis and Franklin Printing Company, from their home.

In the 1940s, Ellis and Franklin began taking in gay and lesbian youth who were kicked out of their homes and needed a place to go. They even helped several of them with their college tuition.

Screenshot: lesbian history, Ruth Ellis at her Printing Job

“There wasn’t very many places you could go when I came to Detroit, unless it’d be somebody’s home… In those days everything was hush hush… So after we bought our home, we opened it up to the gay people. That is where everyone wanted to come on the weekend.”

Ruth Ellis, The Gay Spot

(deleted story here)

From the 40s to the 60s, the couple’s house was known as the “Gay Spot.” Black same-sex couples were not welcome at white gay bars, nor were they welcome at Black straight clubs. Their home gave the community a place to dance, sing, and socialize.

“Her success as an entrepreneur… inspired the couple to turn the home they shared into the “Gay Spot” – a place where young gays and lesbians, who were denied access to both white gay clubs and black straight clubs – could congregate and enjoy a welcoming night club atmosphere.”

The Legacy Project

As Ruth explained it, “I had a big yard. In the summertime, they’d all be out in the yard. We’d have barbeque. They would just come and hang out. We’d have a nice time dancing. Some of them played piano and sang. They’d bring drinks. And we’d have food. We’d just have fun.”

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Screenshot: lesbian history, backyard party at the house

Ellis and Franklin had their issues, but chose to stay together, for several decades, nonetheless. In a now deleted Curve article, Ella states, “We were just two opposite people. Sometimes opposites attract. That was our case. She loved one thing; I loved another. She liked to drink, go to bars, gamble. I never did all that. Mine was concerts… going to church… We went our separate ways, but we stayed together over 30 years.”

“My friends were mad at me, how she treated me. ‘I wouldn’t stay with that woman. I’d leave.’ See, but, I didn’t have anyplace to go if I left… it was my house, and it was her house, so I just stayed there.”

Ruth Ellis, The Gay Spot

(deleted story here)

In the early 1970s, the couple was pushed out of their home by urban development. Ellis moved into a senior citizen building, and Franklin moved to an apartment in Southfield. After more than 30 years together, Franklin died, in 1973.

Screenshot: lesbian history, Ruth Ellis

From the 80s, up until her death, Ellis became a known figure, and even did a documentary Living with Pride: Ruth Ellis @ 100 the year before she died. The filmmaker, Yvonne Welbon, met Ellis when Ellis was 97 years old.

While the documentary put the filmmaker on the map, the stories by Ruth Ellis have been erased from her website, Sisters in the Life a site that originally stated “[Ruth Ellis’] stories serve as the foundation for this website,” and that the site was intended to be “an opportunity for users to create a cyberbook about the lives of lesbians of African decent through the submission of personal and biographical stories.”

The erased stories, written by Ruth Ellis, can now only be found in screenshots taken by an archive site. The site, where Ellis’ stories once had a home, has been rebranded as Black-Queer-Inclusive.”

While history has been deleted to make it appear otherwise, Ellis felt “queer” was a slur, and, while alive, she was “an advocate for the rights of gays and lesbians.” In a now deleted text, Welbron writes, “Throughout her life, Ruth has always been an advocate for the rights of gays and lesbians… when she heard a woman in her senior citizens building speaking in derogatory terms about ‘queers’ she seized the moment to ‘come out’ and say, ‘When you are talking about them, you are talking about me.'”

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Screenshot: lesbian history, backyard party at the house

Also deleted, Welbon writes, “For generations of African American gays and lesbians in the Midwest, Ruth and Babe’s home provided an alternative to the bar scene… Her home was a refuge… Ruth and Babe, offered lodging to black gay men newly arrived from the South.”

Similarly, a deleted Curve article, from the year 2000, talks about Ellis and Franklin’s “gay and lesbian underground parties,” and Ruth’s later-in-life reintroduction to the “lesbian community” and “lesbian feminist community.” Interestingly, in a couple of deleted texts, Curve refers to Sisters in the Life as “Ellis’ web page” and “Ruth’s website.”

Recently, Pride Source wrote, “Ruth and Franklin opened up their home to other LGBTQ folk,” and for a time, “[Ellis] lost most of her connections to her LGBTQ identity.” Philidelphia Gay News writes, “The couple became known for their weekend house parties, a haven for young LGBTs.” The article uses “LGBTQ” 6 times, and “lesbian” once. United Way writes that Ellis was an “LGBTQ rights activist and leader.” This article uses “LGBTQ” 10 times, “gay” 3 times, and “lesbian” once (to refer to a March). The articles don’t provide any links.

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screenshot: lesbian history, young Ruth Ellis

In 2019, Jerry Peterson, the executive director of the Ruth Ellis Center, a center for “LGBTQ+ youth,” said, “We will break ground in October of 2019… and [new housing units] will be preferencing the lived experiences of transwomen of color.” Currently, the Ruth Ellis Center offers a “Drop-in Center” for “Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans and Questioning young people ages 13-30 to simply be themselves and have a space to hang out with one another.” In this space for 13-30 year-olds to “hang out with one another,” they’re provided “safer sex supplies” and “a dance floor.”

Screenshot: 2019 plans for Ruth Ellis Center upgrade

Ellis was a staple at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, a lesbian-run event that was blacklisted and shut down in 2015, 15 years after Ellis died. Feminist author Bonnie Morris once described the festival as “An entire city run by and for lesbian feminists. Utopia revealed.”

In her late nineties, Ellis was celebrated at the National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum annual conference. Ellis led the San Francisco Dyke March in 1999, on her 100th birthday, an event that was, until recent years, run by and for lesbians. Just before she died, Ruth was advocating for an organization for gay and lesbian seniors.”

“Ellis became a fierce advocate for African Americans, senior citizens, and the gay and lesbian communities. She offered assistance to lesbians of color researching their history and their roots; she proposed a variation on Big Brothers/Big Sisters, where younger gays and lesbians would be matched as social companions with gay and lesbian seniors according to similar interests…”

The Legacy Project

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Screenshot: Lesbian history, Ruth Ellis, lesbian icon

In September of 2000, Ellis cut the ribbon at the opening of the Ruth Ellis Center. Weeks later, Ellis died in her sleep, on October 5, 2000. The following year, her ashes were spread at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. Some of her ashes were given to close friends. Two of those friends traveled to Ghana, where they spread her ashes into the sea.

*This post is currently being updated to include information from deleted stories, we’ve just discovered.


جوليا ديانا — Julia Diana Robertson, is a an award-winning author, journalist, and Senior Editor at The Velvet Chronicle.

Julia (R), and her wife, Claudia Founders of The Velvet Chronicle, where integrity and reality prevail.

We’re primarily funded by donations from our readers. Please consider supporting The Velvet Chronicle so we can create and maintain more content. We truly appreciate your support.

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