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In which an exalted ruler is expelled his wife ostracized, their Elk brother banned, and the oldest active Elks lodge in the country findsitself in court

Wednesday, Sep 6 1995
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.

About The Author

Ellen McGarrahan


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