It's safe to say that when the Alameda Elks christened their palatial Craftsman-style lodge on Santa Clara Avenue in 1909 they had no idea an openly gay woman would become their Exalted Ruler. No women were allowed to be members of the conservative all-male organization until 1995.
Yet Susan Timney didn't draw so much as an awkward glance when she danced at her inaugural ball with her official first lady, wife Lynda Kretlow (also an Elk). Now in her third month as Exalted Ruler, Timney has been a fixture at Alameda Lodge #1015 since 2003. Her sexual orientation has never been an issue, she said. She doesn't hide it, nor does she see a need to flaunt it. She didn't become an Elk to campaign for gay rights; she did it to contribute to the community at large.
"It's important just to be myself and not just to wave the gay flag but to wave my own personal flag of who I am," Timney said. "I am a human first. I really want to show compassion and charitable works and being good to each other by my example. I want my good intentions to come through. That's the best thing I can do."
The Elks were a good fit for Timney, now 48. A local native, she attended St. Joseph Notre Dame High School and College of Alameda. She moved to San Francisco at age 20, shortly after she came out as a lesbian.
"Alameda definitely was a good-old-boys town when I was growing up," Timney said. "Having personal feelings for women went against how I was raised."
She moved back to the Island in 2005. She had been commuting back and forth for a couple of years, helping her ailing parents and doing charity work with the Children's Home Society and Over 21, a program that provides services for severely developmentally disabled adults. When she held fundraisers at the Elks Lodge, Timney found herself being courted to become a member. Many people joked about the Elks' heavily male, conservative, over-70 crowd, but it didn't bother Timney at all. For her, it was part of the charm.
"When I first came in, there were only 30 or 40 women," she said. "The men would ask me, 'Are you married?' and I'd say, 'Why? Are you interested?' " She was kidding, of course, but she admits she is "smitten by older men."
The feeling apparently is mutual. Timney not only was welcomed as an Elk; she was asked to become an officer. It normally takes seven years to reach the office of Exalted Ruler. Timney did it in five.
One of the good deeds she hopes to accomplish during her term is to raise money for projects that preserve the architecture and structural integrity of the landmark building. She wants to restore the stately portico to its pristine beauty. She loves the tradition in which the lodge is steeped.
"The walls spoke to me," Timney said. "That's why I'm here."