It is said that Ruth Ellis was the oldest - as in first - known lesbian who was publicly out. What makes her remarkable was that she came out in 1915, which was 54 years before the Stonewall Riots that "started" the queer rights movement.
Throughout her long life Ellis was an activist for the queer community. Even more extraordinary was that Ellis was African American and therefor served a community that faced a double whammy of discrimination - racism and homophobia.
Ellis's main romantic partner - and the only woman she lived with - was Ceciline "Babe" Franklin. When Ellis and Franklin lived in Detroit, Ellis opened up a printing business and became the first woman in Michigan to own and operate a printing business in Michigan according to the GLBT History Month 2009 article on Ellis. Ellis and Franklin turned their house during this time period into a safe haven for black gays and lesbians and it was referred to as "gay spot".
Ruth Ellis died on October 5th, 2000. She was 101 years old at the time of her passing. Her legacy includes the Ruth Ellis Center which, on their website describes their purpose as "to provide short-term and long-term residential safe space and support services for runaway, homeless and at-risk gay, lesbian, bi-attractional, transgender and questioning youth in Detroit and Southeastern Michigan."
According to the center's website Ruth herself, "opened her home to the community on the weekends as a safe space from the 1940s through the 1960s, a time when African-American gay men and lesbians had few social venues." and "personally assisted young people with money for college, books, and food. She unselfishly gave everything that she had to whomever needed it."
In 1999, a documentary Living With Pride: Ruth C. Ellis @ 100 was released about Ruth Ellis's life which was directed by Yvonne Welbon.
Links and Further Reading:
Wikipedia Article on Ruth Ellis
Ruth Ellis Center
GLBT History Month 2009 Spotlight on Ruth Ellis
Living With Pride: Ruth C. Ellis @ 100 at IMDB