Excerpt from "FAMILY: A Portrait of Gay and Lesbian America"
Ruth Ellis was born July 23, 1899 in Springfield, Illinois. In 1937, she moved to Detroit to be with her girlfriend, Babe Franklin. They lived together for 34 years. Babe was a cook, and Ruth ran a print shop out of their house. Babe, 11 years Ruth's junior, died in 1975.
Ruth now lives alone in a 13th floor apartment in a senior citizens building in downtown Detroit. She says people in the building wonder why she has so many young women friends, especially white friends. Ruth is a regular at the Detroit Women's Coffeehouse and at women's music festivals. At the coffeehouse she taps her feet to the music, and complains to her friends that the performing poet is using the pronoun "he" too frequently. "He, he, he. Why not she, she, she," Ruth said.
She was photographed in 1993 her apartment on her exercise bicycle, which was a gift from some of her young lesbian friends.
I guess I knew I was a lesbian in high school because I fell in love with my gym teacher. Now, she didn't know it though, but that was my love. I couldn't do anything, just admired her, that's all. All to myself. I didn't know anything about lesbian or gay people. I tried to find out what we did. I tried to hang around some sportin' women because I figured they would know, but they just laughed me off. They wouldn't tell me nothin'.
Springfield was a small town, and there wasn't very many places gay people could go. We went to a lady's house. She sold liquor. That was back when home brew was in style. I guess she was gay, must have been, but she had both men and women.
I moved to Detroit. Soon after I got there I met a couple of gay girls. Sometimes you can tell who's gay and who's not -- they looked gay. I got acquainted with these girls and they introduced me to more and more. Then after Babe and I bought a home, our house was the main place for gay people to come. Gay people didn't have anyplace else to go. Everybody would bring a bottle. We used to dance a lot. We had a piano in the basement and we'd sing and play. We'd dance and drink and play cards.
Babe and I stayed together over 30 years until the city bought our property and we had to move. That's when I moved into a senior citizen building. I wanted to come downtown and Babe went out in the suburbs. We still kept in touch. That is where she passed, out there in 1975 I think it was.
I didn't know anybody in this senior citizens building that was gay. Then this girl came and taught us adults how to take care of ourselves. I looked at her and I said, "Oh, I bet she's gay." After she left I wrote her a card and asked her if I could get better acquainted with her. She invited me over to another class and I met a lot of the girls there. They were gay. They took me to one of these bars and I met the people there. The ball just kept rollin' -- I kept meetin' the women, the women, the women, until, oh, I just know a gang of them now.
I am the oldest lesbian that they know of. That's it. Everyone wants to meet this old lesbian. They just take me around here, there and yonder. I specialize in the women. I love women. Yes, lesbians, lesbians, lesbians. I get most of my joy from women. Since I met all these women. That's what's keepin' me alive.
Today, the Ruth Ellis Center, a youth and social services agency that serves the needs of runaway, homeless and at-rick youth operates in Detroit. The mission of the Center is to “provide short and long-term residential safe space and support services for runaway, homeless, and at-risk lesbian, gay, bi-attractional, transgender, and questioning youth.”