Maheisha Adams and Meerim Ilyas met at a conference in Ukraine in 2019, and solidified their bond a year later while quarantining together in Washington.
Jan. 14, 2022
photos by Ed Pingol
Meerim Ilyas and Maheisha Adams (Kenya 2005-07) met in April of 2019 while attending the European Lesbian Conference in Kyiv, Ukraine.
When the two decided to meet for dinner one night after the conference, both assumed it was a professional invitation. Yet by the end of the meal, the flowing conversation turned decidedly personal. Both left the dinner besotted. “Meerim is beautiful and intelligent, a fabulous conversationalist, and is always bubbling with ideas, Ms. Adams said.
But romance presented challenges: they lived thousands of miles and an ocean apart and their backgrounds were wildly different.
Ms. Adams, now 42, was raised on the plains of Guthrie, Okla., by her mother and women in her extended family. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in child development from Oklahoma State University, she earned a master’s degree in family relations and child development from the University of Central Oklahoma.
In 2005, Ms. Adams joined the Peace Corps and was placed in Kenya with a two-year commitment. Afterward, she stayed there to do advocacy work for L.G.B.T.Q. rights for five more years. She returned to the U.S. in 2011, and enrolled at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, where she earned a law degree. Ms. Adams is now a program officer for the State Department in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, in Washington.
Ms. Ilyas, now 44, a native of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, grew up in mountainous Central Asia. In 1997, as a 17-year old high-school graduate, she was awarded a grant to attend community college in North Carolina.
With her limited English skills, which she learned from outmoded British textbooks, Ms. Ilyas lived with two host families, one white and one Black. But as a Central Asian with a Muslim background, she didn’t fit in anywhere, she said.
Upon returning to Central Asia, she married an American student and moved back to the U.S., where she earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of San Francisco and a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Washington.
By the time she met Ms. Adams in Ukraine, she had divorced and come out as a lesbian. “Growing up I didn’t even know that gay people existed,” said Ms. Ilyas. “I didn’t even know a word for women like me.”
She had also moved to Dublin and started working for Front Line Defenders, an organization that provides support for global human rights activists, where she is now the head of protection.
After the conference, Ms. Adams and Ms. Ilyas spent the remainder of 2019 arranging international rendezvous, mixing business with pleasure when possible. In March 2020, when the pandemic hit, Ms. Ilyas traveled from Ireland to visit Ms. Adams in Washington, just as the coronavirus shutdown began.
Despite some nervousness, they decided to quarantine together. “Maheisha is practical and grounded and the best listener I’ve ever known,” said Ms. Ilyas. “Staying in the U.S. for her was a risk I was willing to take.”
Working remotely in Ms. Adams’s small apartment, the couple broke up the monotony by throwing dance parties for two and cooking international meals.
In April 2021, Ms. Ilyas proposed to Ms. Adams with a necklace engraved with the Persian word for “my soul.” Ms. Adams’ father is Iranian; the necklace was both a nod to him and to Ms. Ilyas’ roots.
On Jan. 5, the couple married at San Francisco City Hall in front of eight guests, including Ms. Adams’s mother, Monica Adams, who came from Oklahoma. (Ms. Ilyas’s family, who live in Bishkek, could not make the trip.) Kay Edelman, deputized by the State of California, officiated. Ms. Ilyas wore a long black dress beneath a traditional Kyrgyz vest detailed with intricate gold stitching, while Ms. Adams sported a black suit.
Before the ceremony, the two unfurled a large Progress Pride Flag as they posed for photos in the ceremonial rotunda of City Hall, prompting a duo of sheriffs to politely inform them of a rule banning political signs. But it was too late. The photos had been snapped and love had won the day.