She is not shy. This is part of the whole thing, you see, the lack of shyness in Tatiana Estrada. Tatiana Estrada used to be first lady of Elks Lodge No. 3, which is right down there on Post Street, half a block from Union Square, in a building that looks like a castle, turret teeth biting at the sky. The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (BPOE), at home in its Post Street castle, is a venerable, wood-ceilinged, swimming-pooled, bowling-trophied San Francisco fraternal and philanthropic institution, a place where men have sought solace in sweet brotherhood for 119 years. Mayors, fire chiefs, governors, judges — all these and more have called each other brother, and eaten lunch beneath these windows, and hoisted drinks at this bar. At Elks Lodge No. 3, being first lady is a big deal — there are the monthly parties to organize, the foods to oversee, the visitors to meet and greet, people streaming across the ruby-red, elk-emblazoned carpets, past the dead elks mounted up on the wall, their perpetually surprised glass eyes static in their slowly disintegrating faces. It's a lot of work. It's something you do for your husband, the exalted ruler. Something you do out of love.
Now, as first lady of Elks Lodge No. 3, Tatiana Estrada was not shy. Other first ladies — well, they didn't do what Tatiana Estrada did: go around expressing their opinions all the time. Opinions the brother Elks didn't always agree with. She is Russian, you understand, born in China. She has lived in Brazil. She had opinions the brother Elks didn't always want to hear. Tatiana says as much, now. In her spotless house in Concord with Richard, her husband, who was once exalted ruler of Elks Lodge No. 3, who is no longer exalted ruler, who was thrown out of office, whose photograph was stripped from the lodge wall, bringing glassfuls of ice to the table on this hot summer day, the flat planes of countertop and floor around us impossibly, exquisitely clean. It isn't that she regrets it. That she would take any of those words back. Just that, well, her lack of shyness is part of what has happened, of this whole mess, this whole lawsuit mess that has swept the antler-clad brothers of Elks Lodge No. 3 into federal district court:
Richard: “They would try to tell me I couldn't bring my wife to the party or to any lodge organization unless she kept her mouth shut and sat there like a little mouse.”
Tatiana: “And I am an outspoken person. I say the things that I see around me, and I talk about it.”
Richard: “Well of course she didn't talk about it to the officers, but maybe their wives.”
Tatiana: “I am not a meek person. When I disagree with something that is vitally, vitally wrong, I will say so.”
Richard: “The number one thing was that she kept repeating that women should be allowed to be Elks, too, and they didn't like that she always said, 'Why can't we be Elks?' ”
Tatiana: “I always said that because women, to begin with, the wives do always a lot of work in the Elkdom, they are like working horses, they do a lot of work. And I didn't mind that work, I enjoyed it, you support your husband, you support what he believes in, you do that and you help him, it's fine with me. But there's no way that we can have a word in to say, 'How about if you do it this way or that way?' 'No, you are not a member, shut up.' 'So how about if we become members?' 'No way, over our dead body, never, you are women and this is a fraternity organization.' You know.”
As it happens, Elks across the nation are voting this week on whether to admit women to the brotherhood. If they decide in the affirmative, it won't necessarily be because they want to. It could very well be an act of obligation rather than desire, a concession to the courts, to the lawsuits that for almost a decade have demanded gender symmetry in Elkdom. Tatiana and Richard Estrada are plaintiffs in such a lawsuit, along with an erstwhile Elk named Burton Wolfe. Their lawsuit, authored by Wolfe, who is not a lawyer, asks that women be admitted to the Elks. But that's not the only thing their lawsuit says. It makes a number of other charges against the Elks, as well, ranging from conspiracy to unconstitutional religionism to charges of “venomous behavior” to a request that Wolfe and both Estradas should each get $2 million in damages, for pain and suffering. The lawsuit names 24 defendants, ranging from local Elks members to the whole of the Grand Lodge, which is headquartered in Chicago and presides over all of Elkdom. The lawsuit is not pleasing to the Elks, who have responded to it the way deer in the forest might like to greet folks with guns — by hiring lawyers and locking the doors. And while in some ways it is impossible to imagine how the internal bickering in Elks Lodge No. 3 has landed in federal court, on the other hand, there is this: Some people really just don't like to be told to sit down and shut up, no matter who is telling them to do it.
“So they expected that we just go away,” Tatiana Estrada is saying, sitting at the table across from Richard. “But I am not that kind of a person. When I hear something is not right I will go with my head against the brick wall. This is not right. I will expose every single one of them with this. I will show the state, the country, what kind of thing Elkdom really is.”
In the beginning, which was in 1868, Elkdom was rather smaller than it is now. Now there are 1,285,000 Elks in the United States. Now the grand exalted ruler of the Elks visits Washington and has full-color photographs of himself taken with the president of the United States, with the speaker of the House of Representatives, and with both California senators, and those photographs are distributed across the nation in the Elks' own eponymous magazine, for all to see. Back in the winter of 1867-68, the Elks were just a group of friends, actors mostly, and clerks and minstrels and photographers and a wood-turner, who met on Sundays in a New York City rooming house, out of reach of the era's strict excise laws, which taxed the sale of alcohol. The 15 friends had been calling themselves the Jolly Corks, on account of a sly drinking trick they liked to play on newcomers, in which a cork was thrown into the center of the room and the first person to pick it up bought the next round. But on Feb. 16, 1868, they decided to get a bit more formal, and by an 8-7 vote settled on calling themselves after the huge red deer of North America, known “for fleetness of foot, combined with timidity at wrongdoing,” as an 1898 history of the Elks puts it. “It is quite probable that a fine Elk's head suspended in a conspicuous place … may have had something to do with directing the attention of the committee to the name Elk,” the history confides. [page]
Almost instantly, there was trouble. By June 1868, a mere four months after incorporation, nine of the original Elks — including the acknowledged father of the group, a singer named Charles Algernon Sidney Vivian — were expelled from their own club by new members who wanted a better class of people on the premises. “Bro. Kent having demanded an explanation from Bro. Geo. F. McDonald, received the reply that in future none but professionals would be permitted to enter,” the history says. Vivian died of pneumonia in Colorado 12 years later at the age of 34 without ever having set foot in another Elks lodge. By that time, 1880, there were 11 lodges around the country, one of which was Lodge No. 3, founded in San Francisco in 1876. From that day to this, Lodge No. 3 has been continuously open, which makes it, officially, “The Oldest Active Lodge in Elkdom.”
These days, Elks nationwide give some $134 million away each year to charitable causes, Elks spokesman Robert Grafton says, rolling slow syllables into the phone from his home in Micanopie, Fla. Grafton was once the top Elk in the United States, wearing the title grand exalted ruler, serving for one year, as all Elk rulers do.
“The primary purpose of the Elks is to do good things for people who are unfortunate. It's a humanitarian organization,” Grafton says.
Here in San Francisco, the money goes for school scholarships, among other things, including a scholarship for noncitizen teens who otherwise might not get any aid.
“These are kids who need money more than other kids,” says public school college counselor Gordon Chalmers, who works with the Elks on the scholarship program. “The San Francisco Elks Lodge is very wealthy, so they're very generous with their money. They need to be complimented.”
Complimenting, however, is not what is on Burton Wolfe's mind. Not on this particular morning, in any case. Wolfe, author of the lawsuit against the Elks, is sitting on the far side of a big, dark wooden desk, in an office that's eight floors up off Market Street, above a neighborhood where the paper wrappers from fast-food places blow west across brick sidewalks. Wolfe is wearing a red plaid shirt, very neatly pressed, blue pants, a brown belt, and brown shoes. His eyes are light brown, direct, and halogen bright. He shifts back and forth in his chair as he talks, wiping the palm of his left hand against his pants. He is talking about the Elks, and he is not mincing his words.
“They're unusual human beings, let's put it that way. This is why others will not go up to these meetings and why they get to run this lodge on their own. It's just intolerable to anybody to listen to them go through all this garbage hour after hour, over and over again. In addition to that they're very infantile in their attitudes. They're squirrelly little infants pissing in their pants. That's the way I view them.”
Over the years, Wolfe has worked as a journalist — at the Washington Post in 1954, for Stars & Stripes, and for Playboy — and as a cabdriver. He received an award for his reporting from the San Francisco Bar in 1975. His books include a biography of Satanist Anton Szandor LaVey.
And according to documents on file at the California Superior Court in San Francisco, Judge Donald Mitchell declared Wolfe a vexatious litigant for repeatedly relitigating “the causes of actions, claims, controversies and issues of fact and law which were determined by final determinations against him.” The court's computer system shows 34 lawsuits filed by Wolfe since 1985. After Judge Mitchell's 1993 vexatious litigant ruling, Wolfe was barred from filing more lawsuits in Superior Court. For his part, Wolfe says the vexatious litigant section of the Code of Civil Procedure is “to keep people without lawyers out of the courts.” And, he adds, “I've won five times as many lawsuits as I've lost.”
Wolfe's most recent lawsuit, the one filed in the United States District Court, Northern District of California against the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the United States of America and 23 other named defendants, is 94 pages long. The main issue in the lawsuit, Wolfe says, when asked, is the civil rights claim against the Elks for gender discrimination, in not admitting women. But the suit also covers a lot of other ground. In part, that's because it stems from the internal politics of the lodge itself. [page]
The matters currently at issue in the case of Lodge No. 3 are as follows: In 1994, Richard Estrada, who was then exalted ruler, was accused by fellow Elk Richard Adkins of filing “irregular” receipts from a state Elks convention in Bakersfield. Adkins and Estrada both worked as inspectors at the San Francisco Police Department, and from 1992 to '93, Adkins had been exalted ruler of the lodge. The two men, people who know them say, did not get along. Estrada says the Elks went after him for trying to make democratic reforms in the lodge and that they still owe him the money from the Bakersfield convention.
Also in 1994, a brother Elk named Jesse Talley filed a complaint against Burton Wolfe for making an obscene gesture with his right hand and announcing “and fuck all of you” to his fellow Elks. An Elk named William Gay, who was also a San Francisco police officer, had asked Wolfe for his identification card before letting him into a lodge meeting; Wolfe didn't have it with him, and he was barred from the room. As with Adkins and Estrada, Gay and Wolfe had a long-running animosity, other Elks say, stemming perhaps from their different political beliefs. For his part, Wolfe says he indeed said “and fuck all of you” to the Elks, but he denies flipping anybody the bird.
As a result of those complaints, a group of Lodge 3 Elks sitting as the Subordinate Forum heard the charges, agreed with the accusers, ousted Estrada as exalted ruler and banned Wolfe for three years from the lodge. Wolfe and Estrada responded by going to court.
Among the charges Wolfe lists against the Elks: “false, fraudulent, malicious gossip” and “chauvinistic and nationalistic attitudes, anti-socialist political and social views, blind devotion to country, antagonism toward social dissent, obedience to authority, militaristic rituals, and the repeated pledge [sic] of allegiance to the flag of the United States and the singing of patriotic songs.”
Since July 10, when he filed the suit himself, Wolfe says, he has been sending the document around town, seeking legal representation. So far, he says, he has not found it. The Elks, in the meantime, have secured a law firm by the name of Crosby, Heafey, Roach & May, of Oakland, to represent them. In a recent exchange of letters with attorney Jonathan Rolnick, Wolfe wrote:
“In other words, if your clients do not come to their senses and agree to comply with the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, and to reform themselves, they are in for a long, expensive, publicly embarrassing series of litigations. This is not what we want. But if we have to cram reform down the throats of the unwilling officers of the Elks, that is what we will do. Be assured that even if we do not succeed in obtaining counsel, we are fully capable of handling any aspect of litigation on our own, and of carrying on a protracted court battle.”
It should come as no surprise to students of human nature that matters at the Elks Lodge at 450 Post have sometimes been acrimonious. One need only to read the front page of any newspaper in the world these days to realize that people, alas, do not always just get along. Perhaps for that reason, there are many rules and regulations in Elkdom, most of which — judging from the annotations in the 1994 issue of the BPOE statutes — seem to have been broken at one time or another.
The statutes that govern Elkdom are contained in a small booklet the color of pond algae in the spring. Each section of the statutes is set forth, and then a list of “opinions” and “decisions” follows, clarifying what might have been meant by the wording of a given regulation. For example, Elks are forbidden to engage in “conduct unbecoming to an Elk.” But what kind of conduct is that?
In Elkdom, there is a system of jurisprudence to decide these kinds of questions. And in the past, the Grand Forum — which is like the Supreme Court — has issued rulings about whether Elks should assault each other with dangerous instruments in the social rooms of the lodge, apply for search warrants against each other, arrange for nude dancing and obscene pictures at the lodges, break up each other's marriages, bootleg, gamble, support the Bolsheviks, or use “crude and offensive language ending in a fist fight between the Brothers in the hall of a commercial motor home at the close of a State Elks convention.” The Grand Forum ruled that, indeed, these things are not considered becoming behavior.
On the other hand, sometimes Elks find that they're not reined in as tight as they think. Over the years, the Grand Forum has opined that it is not unbecoming, Elk-wise, for an Elk to have his father committed to an insane asylum and then to fail to visit him there; to cover a gambling debt with a check he knows is going to bounce; or to duck payments on debts by claiming to be an Elk in distress, a cry that obligates other Elks to help out.
Now, Elkdom has certain ideas about what it is. A piece of paper that found its way anonymously into the offices of SF Weekly spells them out. Titled “Why be a member? The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks,” the sheet lists 13 reasons to join the brotherhood. Among them: “We respect our neighbors and constantly seek to promote their well being. We love and enjoy life and believe this enjoyment is increased by sharing it with family, friends and all with whom we come in contact.”
Approximately 950 men belong to Elks Lodge No. 3. The building itself was built expressly for the brotherhood in 1925, for the then-princely sum of $1.5 million. This is no scrappy, kudzu-covered, peeling-stucco shack on the side of some sun-drowned Southern road. Au contraire. The Elks of Lodge No. 3 walk across marble floors, beneath ceilings with Egyptian-looking motifs — birds, big cats — stenciled in gilt paint onto dark wood. In the basement, there's an Olympic-size swimming pool and a gym with free weights, Nautilus, StairMasters, and free linen. On the third floor, there's a restaurant and a bar and a huge meeting hall. Membership is $300 per year. [page]
But just signing a dues check doesn't turn a man into an Elk. In order to wear the antlers, the brothers must go through the ritual described in the official, maroon-colored ritual handbook. At the initiation, the new Elks are given membership cards and taught the hailing sign, which denotes the spreading antlers of the Elk — arms outstretched from the shoulders, then raised, palms facing front and fingers extended, to the top of their heads. In response to the hailing, the exalted ruler waggles his fingers back. At the conclusion of the ceremony, the “Star-Spangled Banner” is played.
In the initiation ceremony, the Elks pledge to look out for each other. Break that troth, and “these same hands will be clenched (each member clenches his right hand) to drive you from our midst and punish you for your infidelity.” Serious words. But do Elks, like deer, travel in herds?
Think of it this way: If a door slammed in the forest, would it make any noise?
The current exalted ruler of Lodge No. 3 is a man named David Harris. In his picture outside the closed lodge doors on the third floor of the building at 450 Post, Harris has a square face, a salt-and-pepper beard, and a dark mustache. He is listed as one of the defendants in the lawsuit. I phone him. I tell him that I would like to ask him what it means to him to be an Elk. He tells me to talk to the Elks' lawyer, and gives me attorney Bill Quinby's number.
I call Quinby. “Based upon what we've seen, just as a general rule, our response will be denials of most of the allegations of the complaint,” Quinby says. He has recently been hired to represent the Elks. He asks me not to call any of the other Elks for comment.
However, it is my job to call people, and so I continue to call the Elks of Lodge No. 3.
I call Brother Don Jacobsen. “I'm not going to make any comments of any kind about the lodge, but thank you for calling me,” Jacobsen says.
I call Brother Gene Pioli, leaving a message on his answering machine. I call him back the next day, and as I am introducing myself, he hangs up the phone.
I call Brother Albert “Hap” Hruska, who is a high-ranking Elk district leader. His wife, Laverne, answers the phone. “It's a great place, you have lots of fun,” she says. We make plans to meet, but she calls back and cancels.
At one point in my phone sojourn, I call an Elk who agrees to talk to me about Elkdom, but only if I don't use his name. “I've met some wonderful, wonderful people,” he says. “We all sort of stick together and they help me out. For us down in our lodge here, we have a very, very good athletic facility, but the brotherhood, I'm not sure I can really put my finger on it and explain it. There is a magnetism between us. If the brother's in trouble you help them. We're very proud of our heritage.”
Later that day, another lawyer from the Elks' law firm calls me.
“I would really appreciate it if you'd put a hold on it right now,” Jonathan Rolnick tells me. He has gotten a call from David Harris, the exalted ruler, about my request to talk to Harris about the Elks. “Anything they say to you that I'm not there to control may have some impact on the case.”
“I'd like you to just hold back,” Rolnick says.
The next afternoon, a manila envelope appears on my chair, in my cubicle. My name is written in ball point pen, large letters, uneven script, on the front. Inside are half a year's worth of The Bulletin, the pink-covered Lodge No. 3 magazine. Someone has gone through them and highlighted certain sections in yellow: charitable donations for $1,000 to the Veteran's Hospital; $12,860 in scholarships; a call for volunteers for San Francisco's Meals on Wheels; a $2,500 gift to Christmas in April; the Fifth Annual Summer Blood Drive. The address label on the back of one of the Bulletins has been peeled away.
At his dining room table, Richard Estrada, the ousted exalted ruler, is answering a question about why he has taken the Elks to court. As he talks, Tatiana talks too, their voices interwoven at times, inseparable. Richard recently retired after 30 years with the San Francisco Police Department. He is wearing blue-and-orange gym shorts and a white T-shirt, and he has the habit of looking at his wife while he speaks.
Richard: “Oh, I'm not going to give up.”
Tatiana: “Oh, no.”
Richard: “Kick me in the teeth, call my wife names, have me get up with my tail between my legs.”
Tatiana: “We didn't do anything, do you understand that? All this is a fabrication of their sick minds that they don't want to give up the power.”
Richard: “I could pay my dues again and go back in October. I have no intention. I'm not going to. No way.”
Tatiana: “We are going to expose them. This is why we're doing this. Exposing something that is so wrong in the Lodge Number Three. And the main reason why we're doing that is because the Grand Lodge, when we approached them, didn't do anything about it.” [page]
Richard: “Well, what permeates all of Elkdom is that 'well, let's pretend it doesn't exist, cover it up, cover it up, if it doesn't concern us immediately push it down and let them handle it down there.' ”
Tatiana: “You understand that? So maybe federal courts will do something about it.”
Richard Estrada joined the Elks in 1988 for the gym, which was close enough to police headquarters at 850 Bryant to allow him to work out on his lunch hour. He says he was just a member at first, but that he was soon asked to join what he calls the “quote-unquote officer corps,” who are the men who actually run the lodge for the other Elks. The men all have titles: In order of ascending importance, they are inner guard, chaplain, esquire, tiler, treasurer, secretary, lecturing knight, loyal knight, leading knight, and, lastly and most imperially, exalted ruler. Estrada is demure about his quick ascension in lodge politics, but six years after he became an Elk at Lodge No. 3, he was running the joint.
“You can synopsize it by saying through the ranks, but all through this is where I was getting my baptism so to speak in the politics of the Elks Lodge, which is supposedly run for brotherhood. You have four chairs, representing charity, justice, loyalty, and brotherhood, and if God is in heaven and all is right the way the Elks constitution was written and all those things were fulfilled there wouldn't be any problems, but here you have an organization run by men and subject to their foibles and likes and dislikes. That's where the problems come in.”
Just beyond the house where we are sitting, the yellow hills of Concord lie bare beneath the sun. It is nearly 100 degrees outdoors. As he talks in his dining room, a room made dim by curtains drawn against the heat, Richard Estrada's voice doesn't rise, doesn't fall. It isn't that all 950 Elks of Lodge No. 3 go to the meetings, he is saying. Sometimes only four or five people show up, aside from the officers, who have to be there. It's like fish in a barrel — the fewer there are, the bigger they get. Soon the barrel, which used to be plenty roomy, starts seeming real small.
“They started every meeting attacking me or they were attacking my wife. Every meeting we had they were going over some little detail or chewing over what happened and trying to say you can Monday morning quarterback anybody. The whole thing was they were just trying to discourage me all along.”
Tatiana: “And provoke him.”
Richard: “Or get me mad enough to say I quit.”
Tatiana: “That's what they really wanted.”
Richard: “Or cow me into telling my wife she couldn't come.”
In the second week of July, in New Orleans, this year, the delegates to the national convention of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks voted to strike the word “male” from the brotherhood's membership requirements. Now that decision is going to each of the 2,236 Elks lodges around the country. If the lodges agree with the national Elks leaders, then the word “male” is out. As David Harris explains it in the August 1995 issue of Lodge No. 3's The Bulletin, “this has come about due to circumstances around the United States affecting lodges in other states.” In this context, “circumstances” could well mean the seven-year court battle a Rochester, Mich., woman named Sharon Lee Schellenberg has waged to gain admission to the Elks lodge in her hometown.
The way admission to the Elks works, a member must be proposed by one Elk and supported by two others. In 1988, Schellenberg, a real estate broker, was proposed for admission to the Rochester lodge. Elks vote on members with balls and cubes — white balls being a yes vote, black cubes meaning the applicant is out of luck. Schellenberg was turned down for the Elks club, and she went to court.
“She lived near the club and used to go there regularly as a guest,” says her lawyer, Michael Curhan. “She was not married at the time, and that's why she wanted to apply.”
Twice Schellenberg has won her case at the trial level. A judge ordered the Elks to consider her for membership, which they did, and decided that in fact, they didn't want her in their club. Schellenberg went back to court, saying that she was black-cubed out of the lodge because of her gender. The Elks, on the other hand, said they didn't want Schellenberg not because she's a woman but because she would have used the lodge to make business contacts — something forbidden by the Elks constitution.
“If you thought you were going to join for networking purposes, to help your business, that's wrong,” says Elk spokesman and former Grand Exalted Ruler Grafton.
Yet one son of a loyal Michigan Elk tells of the time his father was chastised when he stopped buying television sets from a brother Elk's store.
And apparently, that's what the court thought, too. After hearing the two sides, the court ordered the Elks to admit Schellenberg. The Elks have appealed that ruling, which is where the case now stands.
The essential issue of the case is this: whether the Elks are a private club, and therefore entitled to limit their membership to whomever they want, or whether the Elks have become a public-service organization, in the legal definition, in which case the civil rights laws guaranteeing equal access in Michigan and other states would apply to the organization and force them to admit women as members.
The Elks' lawyer in the Michigan case, Richard Hooker of Kalamazoo, says the Elks “are a private club. They're a fraternal organization. They are not in fact open to the public, they are open only to their members. They are in existence to provide a fraternal atmosphere, and their primary purpose is not to provide service to the public.” [page]
But Curhan, who is Schellenberg's lawyer, disagrees. “They have very lax membership policies. It's very easy to become a member, and their stated purpose of being out there is for civic and private good. So the court said, surprise surprise, 'you're not a private club in the real sense of the word, you're a public service organization and you're limiting membership illegally.' ”
At this point, it is looking to the Elks like Sharon Lee Schellenberg will eventually become a member of their fraternal organization. “It appears to our legal people that that lady will be admitted as a member,” says Grafton. But even if the lodges vote to strike the word “male” from their membership requirements, Grafton says, that doesn't mean the doors will be flung wide open for the differently gendered. In other words, just because women could be proposed for membership doesn't mean they will be. “There's no requirement that any man be proposed. There won't be any requirement that any woman be proposed,” Grafton says. “I think there will be a few women proposed and become members. I think it will be very few.”
On the third Tuesday in August, I find the locked doors of the Elks Lodge wide open at noon. These Lodge 3 Elks, who won't let me officially anywhere near their club, let hundreds of strangers in every week. The occasion is a meeting of Rotary International, a club that was exclusively male from 1905, when it was founded by four business associates in Chicago, until 1988, when the Supreme Court ordered the doors open to everyone. Now there are 60,000 women Rotarians, out of a total Rotary membership of 1,172,000. In the United States, one out of seven Rotary Club presidents is now a woman. Certainly there are women Rotarians at the Elks Lodge on this particular Tuesday noon. The Rotarians fill one side of the big Elks lounge. The other side — the side with a green etched-glass elk panel behind a big wooden bar — is scattered lightly with men, some of whom sit at tables and talk, some are at the bar, some are reading newspapers beneath the big windows that look out onto Post Street. The older men seem like small, gray birds, chairbound in suits that are slightly too big. There's a big-screen TV in the corner and an elk's head — the animal, not a person — over a mantel at the far end of the room, the six points of its antlers aiming like flames at the ceiling. The carpet underfoot is deep red, in a pattern that includes pictures of elks. All around the room are pictures of past exalted rulers of the lodge. Richard Estrada's photograph isn't among them.
The Rotary International luncheon is huge — easily 20 tables of eight, filled. Most of the Rotarians here on this Tuesday are men, younger to middle-aged, some older. But there are women, too — younger, mostly, well-dressed, in silk skirts and well-buttoned blouses. Around us, on the walls, there are elks heads. Lunch is baby-back ribs, mashed potatoes, corn, salad, iced tea, rolls, and chocolate cake. Except, that is, if you ordered the fruit plate, in which case you get cantaloupe, cottage cheese, blackberries, and raspberries instead of the meat. From my seat in the meeting hall, I look through two sets of glass-paneled doors into the Elks' dining room. The room, or what I can see of it, appears to be empty except for one man who is sitting beneath the tall windows, reading his paper. It is possible that there are Elks over there out of sight, but if that's true, there aren't a whole lot.
Has admitting women changed the Rotary? Martin Kantor, director of the department of public information at Rotary International, says that in a way it has: “In the years immediately after the Supreme Court decision to admit women, Rotary, particularly in the United States, grew by twice the amount it had grown previously.”
Likewise, at the Kiwanis Club, another previously all-male institution, Public Relations Manager David Williams says letting women in allowed the club to make up a shortfall of members. Since 1987, when Kiwanis first started admitting women, more than 40,000 have joined. Now 14 percent of club presidents are female.
“We're really high on women in the Kiwanis Club,” says Richard Pohli, president of the Kiwanis Club of San Francisco for this year.
The Lions Club also started admitting women in 1987, and there are now 90,000 members out of 1,425,000 worldwide, says spokesman Patrick Cannon. “We're obviously delighted,” Cannon says. “We're actively, vigorously pursuing as many as we can get.”
But the Rotary, Lions, and Kiwanis aren't exactly like the Elks, people agree. The Elks own their lodges; they have restaurants; they have bars and billiard rooms and gyms; they have golf courses and bowling alleys and sometimes even country clubs — they're more fraternal, literally. More social. Sharon Schellenberg first filed her lawsuit against the brotherhood the year after the Lions and Kiwanis started admitting women, the same year the Rotary did. The Elks have staved her off for seven years, spending $1.3 million in legal fees to do it, but now there's a good chance that they will follow the same road as the other clubs, at least on paper. If that happens, then, the lawsuit that has ripped Elks Lodge No. 3 apart, like a gunshot from a deer blind, will, in large part, be moot. But that won't necessarily mean it will be over.
Tatiana Estrada is not shy. Her voice is a fast-running stream, capable of wearing a stone smooth. But there are some things that she will not say. More than a year after all of this has happened, some words won't pass her lips. Consider it: the Elks were supposed to be a respite from the cold cruel ways of the world, a better place filled with the fine light of brotherhood. How to explain, then, why it has happened that she was shut down, shut out? Such a prospect, of explaining oneself to the world, would quiet any storm. Perhaps the Elks are indeed a brotherhood. Perhaps the brothers are Cain and Abel. It's true, in the end, you see, that the people who hurt you the most are the ones who know you best. [page]
On the far side of his big wooden desk, Burton Wolfe rolls into gear, talking about the lodge, the Estradas, and himself.
“Let me tell you, they loved the organization. They don't admit that now. They are so infuriated that you won't get totally straight answers from them. They don't want to admit to you or anybody that they loved the organization, because then it's saying 'you hurt us by kicking us out,' but the truth of the matter is it did hurt them very deeply. You see that part of it doesn't hurt me all that much. I have a thick skin. I'm used to battles, and losing as well as winning, but with them they were deeply wounded.”
Here is something to know about elks, the animal: in nature, the creatures live males with males, females with females, except for rutting season, when the bucks grow horns — bone — on their heads and attack each other. In nature, elks will run toward danger when they feel threatened, lashing out with their front feet. They can knock a grown man down.
Tatiana: “So what we want to achieve with this lawsuit …”
Richard: “… is equality.”
Tatiana: “Expose them. My main thing is, expose Lodge Number Three.”
Richard: “I wound up with an ulcer. She wound up with an ulcer.”
Tatiana: “Yes! I have a peptic ulcer. I'm on medication.”
Richard: “We both are.”
Tatiana: “We are in terrible physical condition. Mental stress. Look at me! I'm not that way. Burned out. I am terribly, terribly upset and Richard is doing a good job of controlling me. Otherwise I would be screaming here more than this. I hope you understand how I feel.”
But down in Micanopie, Fla. — half a continent and an entire climate away — former Grand Exalted Ruler Robert Grafton offers this shrug:
“Everybody they carry their feelings on their shoulder and it's so easy to get upset, and if I was upset I'd leave. That's my approach to it. If I don't like you and you don't like me and I'm disgusted with everything, I say, 'OK, fine. I've got other things to do.'