As far as I’m concerned, this woman is not just an icon, she’s a total badass. Gay Rights activist Ruth Ellis (1899-2000) is widely recognized for being the oldest openly gay lesbian upon her death aged 101. Tennessee-born Ellis came out sometime around 1915, and stayed out for the rest of her life. Throughout her life, Ellis was an advocate of LGBT and African American rights, and dedicated herself to helping those less fortunate.
A good indication of her determined character is that Ellis graduated in 1919, at a time when fewer than 7% of African-American high school students graduated. Then, in 1937, Ellis became the first American woman to own a printing business in Detroit, Michigan. She made a living printing stationery, fliers, and posters out of her house, after having worked for a man’s company in the same city, because she knew she could do the job herself.
An openly gay female business owner meant Ellis was already an outlier with regards to black queer history, but beyond being a pillar of the community, she also created perhaps one of the first safe-zones for black LGBT people in the U.S. Ellis and thirty-year partner Ceciline ‘Babe’ Franklin’s house was known in the African American gay community as the ‘The Gay Spot’. It was a central location for gay and lesbian parties, and also served as a refuge for African American gays and lesbians from 1946-1971. It was a refuge for out black gay people before Stonewall.
The ‘Ruth Ellis Center’, founded in 1999, honours the life and work of Ruth Ellis, as demonstrated by her opening her house to homeless African American LGBT+ youth/young adults throughout the 1940s-1960s. It is one of only four agencies in the United States dedicated to these people. According to their website, their aim is:
“to provide short-term and long-term residential safe space and support services for runaway, homeless, and at-risk lesbian, gay, bi-attractional, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth.”
Ellis dedicated her life to helping her community, giving her time and money wherever she could. It is only fitting that she should be recognised as a Gay Icon, as people today are still inspired by her life to help the less fortunate in the gay community.