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First couple to adopt looks back
by Matt Simonette

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Beth Strum (left) and 
Becky Lowery.
Photo by
Matt Simonette

Relatively few people in Illinois may know it, but many of the state's families headed by LGBT parents owe a debt of thanks to Elizabeth Strum and Becky Lowery.

Strum and Lowery have been together for 30 years. They were the first same-sex couple in the state to be granted the right to adopt a child together.

They won their case in 1994, after several years of litigation. Strum and Lowery, who are married, kept their names out of the public sphere in order to guard the privacy of their daughter, Megan, now a graduate student in her early twenties.

The couple has lived in Evanston for several years, but were Chicago residents at the time of the hearings. Strum, who gave birth to Megan in 1990, is a receptionist in a physicians' office and Lowery is a librarian at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

They met in 1984. "This is where we get really stereotypical," Strum said with a laugh. "Becky played on a women's softball team. It was winter, they were bored, so half of them decided to start a women's volleyball team. … I was over at somebody's house, when she got the phone call to join. My friend said, 'I don't want to do that,' but I said, 'I do.'"

Strum and Lowery met at volleyball practice and quickly began dating. They committed to each other about a month into their relationship, Lowery said.

"It wasn't quite a 'U-Haul thing,' but it was fast," Strum added. "I can remember the first time she said, 'I love you,' about a month in. I was like a deer in the headlights, I was so busy being in lust that I hadn't take the time to see how I felt. So then I did, and within a day, I said it back to her. It's pretty much been love ever since."

After a few years, they began talking about having a child, Strum said. "In year five, we started to try. … We took a vacation to Key West. It was a wonderful week. When we got back, the next month, I found out I was pregnant."

They filed court papers about a week after Megan's birth. The stakes were high for the couple: Not only did they face the uncertainty over Lowery's legal standing should she not be allowed to co-adopt, but Strum had to surrender her rights as a mother so she could file to co-adopt with Lowery.

"At the time, we did not know about Lambda [Legal]," according to Strum. "We did not know it existed. Plus Becky already knew the attorney that we went with, Redina Friedman, as a smart, capable attorney who wanted to take this on. …We had no idea if it would be a six-month- or a year-thing. I don't think we imagined it would take four years."

Cook County Circuit Court Judge Steven Yates, on May 9, 1994, ruled that Strum and Lowery could be granted co-parent status, a few months after setting aside an earlier ruling throwing their case out.

"Going into the court, we didn't know what the outcome would be, whether it would be final, or whether the Guardian ad Litem would delay it further," Strum told Outlines shortly after the hearing. "Now that it's done, we couldn't be happier."

There was little media coverage that day. Lowery recalled glancing out the window of the Daley Center and being startled after seeing body bags being strewn out across the street. Serial killer John Wayne Gacy was to be executed that night, sparking a downtown demonstration.

The contrast between their victory and the grim remembrance outside "was kind of poignant because it was the same day," Strum said.

When they returned home that night, Strum and Lowery had guests over to celebrate. When dinner was ready, Strum called in Megan, who was playing outside. But Megan wasn't listening.

"She was swinging and swinging," Strum recalled. "I said, 'Megan, I'm talking to you.' And she said, 'I don't have to listen to you—you're not my only mother. My other mother's in there. The judge said so.'"

"It didn't take her long to figure out how to play the angles," added Lowery.

Indeed, Megan never had issue with the concept of having two mothers, Strum said. "She 'outed' us at the grocery store constantly—it was exhausting having to explain it so much."

Megan developed a knack for mediating arguments, and is now studying Conflict Resolution in Washington, D.C.

Lowery contrasted the scope of her family's court case against events of the past year, as marriage equality has become law of the land in numerous states, whether through legislation or the courts.

"[Marriage-related events] have been seismic," said Lowery. "This has been a paradigm shift. People might ask, 'who cares about what [we] did? The question is, how many states are going to change this week?"

But Strum places their contribution in perspective, recalling that, just recently, a young member of her synagogue, still a student in high school, had told her that she was planning on coming out during a speech there.

"[With] The bravery that exists now, kids grow up and go to college already knowing that they are gay," Strum said. "The world that they live in is different, because all the small steps people took behind the scenes and in front of cameras made a difference."

That's why she and Lowery decided that this year, the 20th anniversary of their victory, was time to come forward with their story.

"My thinking was, in the big picture, if people like us hadn't done what we had done 20 years ago, and taken all those baby steps, things might be different," she noted. "Those things add up to a different world than what we were living in back then."

Now, Strum added, "Your family is who you make your family—that's the 'new' family."

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