The safe haven is already creating a legacy that can match the 101 years of its namesake.
DETROIT—Long before words like “shade” and “yes, queen” were coopted from the rainbow community and forever-embedded into the American lexicon, it was dangerous to use this kind of language—because it was more dangerous to live under the suspicion of being gay.
Being Black and gay was a lethal personal intersection, even in 1999. That’s when the Ruth Ellis Center was founded.
“Growing up, [I heard] so many nasty discussions about people who were like me that it made me feel very insecure about who I was,” Sharron Fincher told The ‘Gander.
Fincher is access coordinator for Avalon, formerly known as Wayne County SAFE, a service that helps people affected by sexual violence heal and reclaim their power.
She also sits on the Ruth Ellis Center’s board of directors and chairs its programs committee.
“My job is to go back and show [LGBTQ+ youth] that, despite the hardships of life now, it’s going to be okay one day.”
And that’s been the mission of the safe haven for more than 20 years.
Inspired by an Icon
Though she was not involved in the founding of the center, Ruth Ellis was an Illinois native and businesswoman who moved to Detroit with her partner, Celine “Babe” Franklin, in the late 1930s.
Ahead of her time, Ellis ran her own printing press out of the home she and Babe shared on Detroit’s west side.
“Ruth’s house was always a safe haven for the community,” Fincher said. “And since she was an entrepreneur, she often used her money to put people through school.”
The Ruth Ellis Center was founded in the same welcoming spirit by Dr. Kofi Adomoa, a longtime friend of Ellis.
“If she can do it, and be happy and live a good life, why not us,” Adoma said in a Michigan Radio interview.
“That’s what we try to teach some of the kids at the Ruth Ellis Center also,” Adoma said. “Be who you are, love yourself, respect yourself, and at the same time realize that you still live in a society that has yet to embrace our existence unfortunately,” she said.
The center exists to help queer youth find their place in that society that largely pushes them to the margins.
Today, the Ruth Ellis Center is changing with the times. The Detroit hub provides job skills training for unhoused youth so they can work to get back on their feet, and offers housing in partnership with Vista Maria in Dearborn.
It has sent trans ambassadors to the United Nations to testify to the atrocities they face as global citizens and established the Kofi House, one of the few safe spaces dedicated to to Black queer women and girls.
Now, the center faces one of its biggest hurdles to date—a global pandemic.
Yet, services are still available to community members in need, though modified to keep everyone safe.
The Ruth Ellis Center offers many programs and services, including:
- Physical healthcare
- Mental healthcare
- Food to go
- Beauty kits
How You Can Help
The Ruth Ellis Center is a nonprofit organization that functions mostly through grants and donations from private citizens.
Volunteer opportunities have been suspended due to the pandemic, but will resume once it is safe to do so.
Ruth Ellis lived to be 101 years old. She died in 2000.