The Life of Ruth Ellis, America's Oldest Lesbian Rights Activist

A hundred years of gay rights


| January/February 2000



As we begin a new century, 100-year-old Ruth Ellis is a living reminder of the century past: She was born July 23, 1899, in Springfield, Illinois, into a world of oil lamps, horse-drawn carriages, and closeted homosexuals. Celebrated today as America's oldest out lesbian, Ellis is also a reminder of how far American culture has moved toward accepting a diversity of sexual preferences.

When she came out around 1915, no one could teach her what it meant to be a woman. Certainly, she had no lesbian role models. "My mother died just about the time I started menstruating," she recalls, "so she showed me that, but from then on nobody told me anything."

A well-placed message from her father finally brought the world of women into her view: "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 who became the first African American mail carrier in 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.

In the 1920s she met Babe, who would become her partner for the next 30 years. "Because I was 10 years older than she, I almost shut the door in her face," Ellis recalls. "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."

The two women bought a home together in Detroit. Ellis got a job at a print shop and Babe worked as a cook. "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," she says. "I'd sit and watch, take care of the animals."

Soon, the couple's home became a central location for African American gay and lesbian underground parties, while a room on 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, flyers, posters, and raffle tickets for churches, small businesses, and individuals.