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How Ruth Ellis Inspired My Early Activism Helping Queer At-Risk Youth

Jason A. Michael

My friendship with the late Ruth Ellis predates my time with Between The Lines, Pride Source's print publication. But just barely. I first interviewed her for KICK! Magazine. I was managing editor of the publication, and we were putting Ruth on the cover in honor of her upcoming 100th birthday. 

For the interview, I traveled to Ruth’s place. She lived in a senior apartment building downtown, where she was still self-sufficient and very active. A bundle of energy, even at such an advanced age, she ran errands and made store trips for neighbors. 

She greeted me warmly when I arrived and gave me a hug. Ruth was a kind and gentle woman. She loved people, and she loved life. She had run her own printing shop for years until her home, out of which she ran the business, was torn down in the name of urban revitalization. 

But even after she retired, she still stayed active. She was an avid bowler. She’d gotten into photography, and she loved to dance. Ruth also loved young folks and their new ideas and thoughts. 

At 99, she had few contemporaries. She had outlived so many, including her longtime partner Ceciline “Babe” Franklin. The two were popular among queer people of color back in the day. Ruth used to host parties in her house, very downlow but popular events. She also put up more than a few folk after their homosexuality had been exposed and they were thrown out of their houses. Heck, a couple she even helped through college.

After retiring, she left that life behind her and, in a way, retreated back into the closet. She and Babe were no longer living together. And the folks in the senior building weren’t very savvy on gay rights and liberation. 

As she got older, however, she was rediscovered by the LGBTQ+ community. It all started after she took a self-defense class with martial arts instructor Jaye Spiro. Ruth knew a lesbian when she saw one, and she struck up a conversation with Spiro after class. The two became fast friends. 

Spiro started taking Ruth out and introduced her to a whole new generation of gay folk. Ruth traveled, attended the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival multiple times and just basically lived her best queer life. She was hailed as the matriarch of Detroit’s Black, queer community. Ruth loved the attention she received but it confounded her at the same time.

At that first meeting in her tiny apartment, Ruth told me she couldn’t understand why everyone was making such a fuss over “li’l ol' Ruth Ellis.” A documentary had been made, and it was scheduled to be shown during the annual Hotter Than July/Black Gay Pride celebration. The film was riveting. In it, Ruth traveled back to her native Springfield, Illinois and visited her old high school. She reminisced about her first crush, her female gym teacher, and even took a lap around the old gym to show she still could.

The documentary, “Living with Pride: Ruth Ellis @ 100,” was a critical success. Its Detroit premiere took place in Wayne State University’s Community Arts Auditorium. I actually ended up in a seat a few rows in front of Ruth, needing to be close enough to take photos of the evening’s speakers. Somehow, li’l ol' Ruth Ellis spotted me in the crowd. “Is that Jason?” she called out. I waved, delighted she’d remembered me. 

Ruth Ellis with Jordan, the son of a Ruth Ellis Center board member. Photo: Jason A. Michael
Ruth Ellis with Jordan, the son of a Ruth Ellis Center board member. Photo: Jason A. Michael

Following the screening, I took several pics of Ruth. She was the belle of the ball and, literally, the star of the show. It was her night. Actually, as she turned 100, it was her year.

But no matter how much energy she had, her 100th year was a bit grueling. She went on tour to promote the documentary and perhaps took on a little more than she should have. Still, at her 101st birthday party, conveniently held in Spiro’s Ferndale studio, she was in good spirits. 

It was a special evening. Friends paid tribute, several young folks performed and read poetry, and Ruth’s dear friend Kofi Adoma played the violin. Ruth was still vital, and she had a good time.

At the same time all this was happening, an initiative had begun. A group of community leaders gathered in attorney John Allen’s office with the goal of creating some type of emergency housing for queer teens who may otherwise end up on the streets. At that first meeting in June 1999, I, as a member of that committee, voted with the rest of those in attendance to name the initiative the Ruth Ellis Center (REC).

This really tickled Ruth. She was present when the REC opened their first drop-in center at the corner of Woodward Avenue and Six Mile Road. With a little assistance, she cut the ribbon and posed for photos with fans both young and old. 

Though at times Ruth appeared superhuman, she was, alas, simply human. She died Oct. 5, 2000, less than three months after turning 101. I continued to watch with a certain pride as the Ruth Ellis Center grew and quickly expanded from a tiny one-room space on the second floor to a much larger space on the first. Executive Director Grace McClelland deserves a lot of credit for the agency’s growth. She oversaw the opening of the office space and a giant, new drop-in center in Highland Park. She also acted as project manager when the center bought their first house, Ruth’s House, soon after. 

Today, the Ruth Ellis Center is bigger and more successful than ever — much larger than those of us at that first meeting could have hoped for. Much larger, still, than I’m sure li’l ol' Ruth Ellis could have ever imagined. Through the agency and its good work, my friend Ruth lives on. And that makes me smile. Li'l ol' Ruth Ellis was really larger than life, and she lives on through the agency that bears her name.  

I’ve thought of her over the years, each time I’ve written a story about the agency’s incredible growth. She’d be so proud of all that’s been accomplished in her name. Yes, li'l ol' Ruth Ellis has made it to the big time, right where she belongs.

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