Elaine Mikels (1921-2004)

Elaine Mikels

Elaine Mikel's social activism and struggle against injustice was paralleled by a life-long search for her own identity and place in the world. Her journey began in Los Angeles. Perplexed by this "unmanageable" white, middle-class Jewish tomboy, her mother hoped the nuns at Flintridge, a Catholic boarding school, would teach her obedience.

"Instead, the love and attention Sister Anna-Marie gave me…instilled in me a strong sense of myself and a more independent spirit."

Her early relationships with straight women in the 1940s, interspersed with confused relationships with men, brought adventure and pleasure but also hard lessons about agony, loneliness and fear. Like many closeted women in that era, Elaine had little framework for understanding her feelings for women but knew well the discomfort of living in a homophobic society. Not free to be who she was had personal costs: bouts of depression, several hospitalizations and expulsion by the State Department from post-war Germany where she was a relief worker. Not yet ready to push back, she pushed through the 1950s as a free-spirited world traveler but self-described "apolitical conformist."

Her decision to pursue social work as her chosen profession ultimately resulted in a significant dissonance between "accepting the ideas of those in authority" and a deepening identification with the oppressed poor. "I, too, felt like a second-class citizen, being rejected by the mainstream because of my homosexuality …"

In 1959, Elaine learned of the need for a normalizing transitional community for people with mental illness who were returning to San Francisco from Napa State Hospital. By 1960 she had acquired a large Victorian property and created Conard House, the first "halfway house" in San Francisco.

"When I broke away from the system in the late 1960s, I went through an amazing personal transformation, not unlike many others during this time of civil strife and the war in Vietnam. I was no longer afraid of authority figures." Elaine became a fearless, outspoken radical in anti-poverty organizing, the anti-war movement, the civil rights campaign for gays and lesbians, and women's health – working in cities and rural areas throughout the country.

Elaine's journey ended in Santa Fe, where she "found acceptance, validation and loving friendships…and discovered that gender and sexual preference has little to do with one's politics, sense of values and integrity."

All quotes are from Elaine Mikel's 1993 autobiography, Just Lucky I Guess: From Closet Lesbian to Radical Dyke, which she dedicated "to all women who have worked for peace and justice for those oppressed throughout the world and particularly for the great sacrifice of their time and energy for rights of woman and their lesbian sisters."