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Each Sunday I make time to reflect on life, not just my personal ‘vida loca’ but the ever-changing world. Sometimes it’s with a glass of iced tea. Other Sundays I kick back with a glass of red wine. But this Sunday, July 23, I celebrated with a glass of champagne.
There has been a lot to celebrate lately. Nationally, the House of Representatives rejected the discriminatory Marriage Amendment Bill (HJ Res. 88) on the heels of a similar victory in the Senate just six weeks ago. The vote for the proposal to define marriage as a union between a man and woman was 47 short of the two-thirds majority needed to advance a constitutional amendment. Sadly more states adopted similar discriminatory bills.
Congress also voted to renew three crucial section of the Voting Rights Act, Sections 5, 203 and 6-9. Section 5 requires that states with a documented history of discriminatory voting practices and low voter turnout submit planned changes in their election laws or procedures to federal officials for approval. Section 203 provides important tools to ensure fundamental fairness in the voting process for language minority groups whose proficiency has been limited because of discrimination and barriers to literacy. Sections 6-9 give the US attorney general the authority to send federal observers to monitor elections. A band of rogue Republicans tried to stop the renewal as no longer needed but the disenfranchised voters in the 2000 and 2004 elections and the displaced voters of New Orleans show voter protection is still needed and that protection prevailed.
Despite the setbacks in the fight for marriage equality at the state level, and the challenges facing Michigan’s LGBT families in adoption that saddened our community, the sight of thousands of spectators in Chicago’s Soldiers Field welcoming the athletes from across the country and around the world to Gay Games VII lifted our spirits and inspired us. The spectacular closing at Wrigley Field left us with great memories, and reason to celebrate.
So much to celebrate and what great promise for the future, but on Sunday I raised my glass not to the future but in celebration of an event that had occurred 107 years ago – the birth of Miss Ruth Ellis.
Like so many others I first met Ruth Ellis on the dance floor at the Detroit Women’s Coffeehouse. She was already in her 90s but had more life and spirit than many a third of her age. She was our bright shining star. Everyone stopped to say hello, touch her hand, get a hug. It was the same at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, where women jockeyed to be the one to push Ruth’s wheelchair.
Throughout her life, Ruth Ellis was an advocate for the rights of gays and lesbians. But she was also an African American and besides advocating for the rights of the African American community was a role model for African American youth, lesbians and seniors – the mother of our tribe.
I can still remember the first time my mother visited the coffeehouse. She had come to grips with having a lesbian daughter and knew many of my friends but did not know what to expect at the coffeehouse. Then Ruth arrived. Not only did they share stories of a Detroit long gone – the North End, Black Bottom – but in many ways she demystified the gay community for my mother. Here was a woman much like her, who knew the city like she knew it, shared the history of every other African-American trying to survive up north with its institutionalized racism. The only difference was the gender of whom they loved but they had loved, laughed and lived during a tough time for Black people here in Detroit. They were both born in July, although a generation apart, and they both loved to dance.
They are both gone now. Gone before they could see gay marriage legalized in Massachusetts, before they could see gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and straight Michiganders come together to fight discrimination around Proposal 2, before they could see an LGBT community center being built in the heart of Ferndale, before seeing the splendor of the gay games not in San Francisco but in the Midwest and before we achieved true equality as Americans with full participation and inclusion, giving our personal best in all aspects of society.
Last Sunday, July 23, I thought of the lessons from my mother in being a strong, proud black woman and smiled, then I raised my glass to Ruth Ellis for teaching me to be a strong, proud and out black lesbian
Thank you Ruth and Happy birthday!