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."
"Take a stand for something worthwhile, raise a banner in behalf of truth, health, justice, beauty, or morality. Each will inevitably be joined by others, so that truth shall prevail, so that health shall be abundant, so that justice shall be established, so that beauty shall dominate over ugliness, so that morality shall thrive among our people."
~ Conard B. Rheiner, October 1, 1967
His life was deeply concerned with the never-ending struggle for justice and peace. He was outspoken, sensitive and compassionate. His sense of values and integrity were a model for, among others, Elaine Mikels. "I couldn't have found a better person to work for than Conard Rheiner, a kind and gentle man who had been the minister of several Unitarian churches … and director of the Center for the Blind in Seattle, Washington."
Conard and Elaine met during their association with Mission Neighborhood Centers. During his lifetime, Conard received considerable recognition for his contribution to the field of social work. When Elaine Mikels created the first "halfway" house in San Francisco, she named it Conard House, in honor of his accomplishments, leadership and most especially his influence on the fearless, politically radical activist she was becoming.
Born in Philadelphia, Conard was ordained into the Universalist ministry following his graduation from Tufts University in 1928. Conard continued to lead and further the Unitarian Universalist cause until his death in 1987. He served churches in Massachusetts, Iowa, Maine and Denver, Colorado. It was in Chicago in the 1940s and early 1950s that Conard decided to make social work his life career, social work as embodied in settlement houses and neighborhood centers. He and Anne, his wife of nearly sixty years, eventually settled in the Bay Area. They were founding members of the Unitarian Universalist Church in San Mateo.
In 1987, the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco established the Rheiner Award, which recognizes "those unsung advocates among us who practice humanitarian principles in all their affairs…" According to the Award Committee, the ministry of the Reverend Conard Rheiner (1961-1987) was "exceptional for its activism and community service." His life, along with those of recipients of the Award, has shown "commitment, leadership, significant accomplishments, and meaningful involvement with our Unitarian Universalist principles."