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social sciences

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Ellis, Ruth (1899-2000)  
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To further supplement their income, Ellis and Franklin rented the other flat to "a gay fellow."

Gay men and lesbians had little visibility at the time, and opportunities for socializing were extremely limited. "It was a hush-hush thing when I was coming up," stated Ellis.

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She and Franklin opened their home to other lesbians and gay men, giving parties to which "people used to come from everyplace" and earning their house on Oakland Avenue a reputation as "the gay spot."

"On weekends, that would be the place to come because there weren't many places unless it was in someone's home. So they'd come down, and we'd play the piano and dance, and some of them would play cards," recalled Ellis in 1998. Gay men and lesbians came from as far away as Flint, Michigan and Cleveland, Ohio to attend the gatherings because they felt welcome in Ellis and Franklin's home.

The two women were an unlikely pair. "We were just two opposite people. Sometimes opposites attract. That was our case," explained Ellis. "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."

Despite their differences, the couple stayed together for more than thirty years. "That's what I want these girls to do now, instead of breaking up after two or three months," declared Ellis.

In the early 1970s, Franklin moved to the suburb of Southfield to be nearer her job, but Ellis, who never learned to drive, chose to remain in Detroit. Even after the couple stopped living together, though, said Ellis, "I had a key to her place, and I could come and go as I wanted."

Franklin died in 1975. Ellis had meanwhile moved into the downtown Wolverine Senior Center, where, because of her ebullient personality, she quickly befriended other residents and then helped them out by going grocery shopping and running errands for them.

At the age of seventy-nine, Ellis enrolled in a self-defense class taught by a woman, Jay Spiro, who she correctly suspected was a lesbian. Spiro, the first white lesbian whom Ellis had met, introduced her to a community of younger gay women, who immediately embraced her.

"They took me to bars. We went from one bar to another," recounted Ellis. "Then it just kept snowballing" as she began engaging in more and more glbtq and feminist activities. She became an admired and respected member of Detroit's glbtq community. "She was our inspiration and our link to the past," commented Kofi Adoma, for whom Ellis was both a friend and a role model. "When we listened to Ruth's stories, we knew we should also be able to accomplish things and not have fear."

Ellis's new friends were quick to volunteer to drive her wherever she needed to go, and they raised money to send her to a conference in California on issues faced by gay and lesbian African Americans. She began to enjoy traveling, making annual trips to Provincetown, Massachusetts and to the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. She took other trips around the country as well, including a 1999 jaunt to San Francisco, where she led the annual Dyke March and was serenaded by thousands of women singing "Happy Birthday" in honor of her centennial.

The once-shy schoolgirl also became a public speaker, addressing community and school groups and forums at the University of Michigan, Wayne State University, and Michigan State University. She imparted several messages to her audiences, the first of which was that they should be proud of and honest about themselves. In her case, stated Ellis, "I was always out of the closet. I didn't have to come out."

She also encouraged students to engage with older people--to get to know at least one, to be a true, generous, and respectful friend to the person, and to benefit from learning about his or her individual story.

That story, she explained--or perhaps warned them--could include lifelong experiences of sexuality, however imponderable that seemed to the young. Students at MSU appeared nonplussed by the mere presence of such an elderly person, let alone one who frankly stated that she had enjoyed a sexual encounter at the age of ninety-five.

Ellis was a lifelong church-goer despite the fact that "back in my time gays were sort of ostracized." She lived long enough to see some progress, however, and some hope for the future: "My church had a gay day, with a gay guest minister. When a preacher explains why we're just like anybody else, they hear that, and maybe afterward they'll have a different thought about us."

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