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Portrait of a 100-Year-Old Lesbian
As we hurtle towards the millennium, 100-year-old Ruth Ellis is a reminder of the century past, born July 23, 1899, in Springfield, Ill., into a world of oil lamps and horse-drawn carriages.
Lately, having gained a bit of notoriety as the oldest out lesbian, Ellis has been traveling, making connections with women from all around the world. She is a familiar face each year at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, and has also been invited to speak at numerous other events nationwide.
A new documentary by Yvonne Welbon, Living With Pride: Ruth Ellis @ 100, has been playing the film festival circuit. When Ellis came to San Francisco last summer for the premiere screening, she was a star. The film sold out three separate screenings. It was standing room only at the premiere screening, where a large crowd stayed afterward for a slice of birthday cake and Ellis held court on stage to a room full of women eager to share a few words with her.
She led this year's San Francisco Dyke March, where thousands of Bay Area women sang "Happy Birthday" to her, the first of many birthday celebrations over the summer.
LEARNING AND LONGING
When she came out around 1915, there was no one to teach her what it meant to be a woman. Certainly, there were no lesbian role models in her life. "My mother died just about the time I started menstruating," she remembers. "So she showed me that, but from then on nobody told me anything."
Finally, Ellis met some women she thought were lesbians. "I got acquainted with some sporting women [prostitutes] and I thought they'd know everything," she recalls. "They wouldn't tell me nothing. Nobody'd tell me anything.
"Once my dad brought me a book. It told about women, different parts of their body and all like that. He didn't tell me he'd bought that book. He just laid it on his desk. He knew I'd be meddlesome and look in to read it. When he thought I'd seen enough of it, why, the book disappeared. So that's how I learned [about sex]."
Ellis' father, born into slavery, was a self-educated man. He became the first African-American mail carrier in the state of Illinois. Ellis, and two of her three brothers, graduated from high school at a time when fewer than 7 percent of African-American schoolgirls were able to complete secondary school.
Ellis claims, though, that she was a slow learner. "I couldn't grasp things as quick as the other kids could....I'm not a reader, but he [her father] had some nice books in his book case--United States history, Caesar..." One tactic she used for her Latin lessons was to sneak her father's book on the Roman Empire to crib the completed translations.
Another tactic, which has served her well, is a willingness to question. "If I don't know something, I ask somebody who knows," she says.
LOVE AND DISAPPOINTMENT
In the 1920s Ellis met Babe, her partner of more than 30 years. "Because I was 10 years older than she, I almost shut the door in her face," she says. But later she thought it over and decided to move with Babe to Detroit. "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."
Ellis and Babe bought a home together in Detroit. Ellis got a job for $7 a week and Babe was paid top wages as a cook at $10 a week. "That was my first experience of living with somebody," Ellis says. "She was very handy around the house. She'd remodel, do things that had to be done.
"I'd sit and watch, take care of the animals," Ellis laughs.
As the couple's home in Detroit became a central location for African-American gay and lesbian underground parties, a room in the lower floor also became a storefront for Ellis' new business.
"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?" For years, she made her living printing stationery, fliers, posters and raffle tickets for churches, small businesses and individuals.
As for settling down, Babe had other ideas, and staying in the relationship called upon all of Ellis' resources. "It worked pretty good for a while," she says. "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 and things like that, going to church and church things."
Eventually, Ellis took up photography as a distraction to keep herself busy. That creative endeavor helped her to heal, and provided a lifetime of photos documenting her world.
To ease her loneliness, she also spent a lot of time with her French poodle and dachshund. "I got a lot of my comfort just being around the dogs," she says. "They were a lot of company."
Eventually, the couple did part. "We went our separate ways, but we stayed together over 30 years," says Ellis. "That's what I want these girls to do now, instead of breaking up after two or three months."
CONNECTION AND COMMUNITY
More than half a century after coming out, Ellis' life changed dramatically with a chance encounter that introduced her to a larger lesbian community.
Ellis had signed up for a self-defense class taught at the senior center where she lived. The teacher was a woman named Jay Spiro.
"When I saw her I suspicioned she was gay," Ellis says. "So I asked her if I could get better acquainted with her." Spiro, a white woman many years her junior, and Ellis became friends--the first interracial friendship in Ellis' life.
Spiro introduced Ellis to the 1970s lesbian feminist community she knew in Detroit, and Ellis quickly became part of a scene quite different from the segregated "house party" culture of the 1940s.
"They took me to the bars, we went from one bar to another," she says. "Then it just kept snowballing."
Her 100th year nearly at an end, Ellis seems content now to stay home in Detroit. She says she won't come back to California, nor will she go to France despite a pressing invitation. "No, I'm not crossing no ocean, no way," she says. "I don't want to cross that much water."
Looking to the future, Ellis says, "I'm ready to kind of duck out of it, it's getting too fast." But she hopes to be around for the millennium, "if you people don't wear me out before then," she jokes.
Even so, she hopes that things will slow down. "Everybody seems to be skeptical about this [year] 2000 change." Having lived through the changing of the last century, it's nothing Ellis is too worried about. "I've got my oil lamp and groceries," she says.
For more info, see Ellis' web page at http://www.sistersinthelife.com.
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Ruth Ellis Has Died at 101
October 9, 2000
Ruth Ellis, a resident of Detroit who became known around the world as the oldest out lesbian, passed away at her home early in the morning on Thursday, October 5.
She was 101 years old, and had been hospitalized recently for heart problems.
For the past several years, Detroit residents have celebrated Ruth Ellis Day every February during Black History Month. On September 9 of this year, Ellis attended dedication ceremonies for Detroit's Ruth Ellis Center for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth.
Ellis, born July 23, 1899, in Springfield, Ill., was also memorialized in "Living With Pride: Ruth C. Ellis @ 100", a 1999 documentary film made by her friend Yvonne Welbon.
Ellis had previously requested that there be no funeral to mark her passing. Instead, her friends are organizing a memorial service to be held in Detroit later this month.
You can also visit Ruth's website at http://www.sistersinthelife.com