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Originally published August 25, 2012 at 8:05 PM | Page modified August 26, 2012 at 8:28 AM

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New mission for ill Cheryl Chow: talking about being gay

Cheryl Chow has been an advocate her whole career, and she isn't finished. From her wheelchair, from her couch, from her hospital bed, as she receives aggressive lymphoma treatments that might still save her, Chow wants to tell people not to be afraid to talk about being gay.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Editor's note:

Commenting has been disabled because of the sensitive nature of this story and because many previous comments about the subject violated our terms of service.

Cheryl Chow has been a private person living a public life for 66 years.

As the only daughter of restaurateur and Metropolitan King County Council Member Ruby Chow, she followed her mother into politics and civic life as a leader not just in the Chinese community but in Seattle.

She built a career as an educator, Seattle City Councilmember and Seattle School Board member that earned her renown for her toughness and passion for kids. But it came with "a lot of pressure," she recalls. "Lots and lots of pressure."

Now Chow has central nervous-system lymphoma. And cancer has a way of making secrets less important.

So at the 60th anniversary celebration of the Seattle Chinese Community Girls Drill Team last month, Chow came out as a lesbian.

"I said, 'What the hell,' " she said. "I said, 'Well, I can say anything I want now.' "

Chow has been an advocate her whole career, and she isn't finished. From her wheelchair, from her couch, from her hospital bed, as she receives aggressive treatments that might still save her, Chow wants to tell people not to be afraid to talk about being gay.

It was a secret Chow had hidden for decades, as she dated men and taught her now-4-year-old daughter to call her "Kai-ma," or Godmother.

She formally adopted Liliana Aug. 6, and invited reporters over last week to the Seward Park home she shares with her partner of 10 years, Sarah Morningstar.

She and Morningstar, 34, who also is an educator, met at a campaign event. Together, they've completed marathons and seen both of Chow's parents die. They bought a house and raised a toddler. They fought off Chow's cancer the first time, in 2011. It returned in March.

"Sarah has taught me how to love," Chow told more than 350 people gathered at the drill team's 60th anniversary in Renton, on July 21. "Chinese, we don't love. That's why we bow."

Those who know Chow best find it hard to talk about her without tears. It's not clear how much time she has left. But they say they're not surprised to hear her speaking boldly.

"As long as I've been with my sister, which has been a long time because we're so close, all she wants to do is help people," said her brother, Brien Chow. "Her heart is to help young people, because they turn out to be our future leaders, our future role models and that's all: She just wants people to have a good chance in life."

Chow entered politics in 1985, when her mother, Ruby Chow, retired from the Metropolitan King County Council seat she had held since 1974. Cheryl Chow ran for it, but lost. In 1989 she was elected to the first of two terms on the Seattle City Council.

Former council colleague Margaret Pageler said Chow was honest and direct, and known for "her fierce loyalty and advocacy," especially for girls.

For generations of Chinese girls, she was a drill-team coach and basketball coach, and also their school principal, at Sharples Junior High or Franklin and Garfield high schools.

She was stern, a stickler for discipline, five-foot-one, 100 pounds, and famous for walking the school halls with a paddle in one hand. She's not a hugger, as she's quick to announce, and her sense of humor is as well-known as her high standards.

"She was just ever-present," said Sue May Eng, who grew up on the drill team in the 1970s and now is an instructor. "Such a support in so many aspects of our lives. [We were] very fortunate to have someone there in all the different areas of life."

As School Board president, Chow oversaw school closures and the hiring of former Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson.

"One thing I learned watching Cheryl ... is that along with leadership comes hard decisions, and when you're a leader, you have to make hard decisions and you can't please everyone all the time," Eng said.

In April, Chow suffered from seizures and had to be put into an induced coma for a week. She sank into a depression, and Morningstar asked Gov. Chris Gregoire, a friend of Chow's, if she could come visit. The governor did, and her pep talk helped persuade Chow there was more work to do.

In the past, Chow and Morningstar's relationship has almost been exposed. They considered coming out as a couple. Chow recalled: "She said to me, 'Why don't you come out and wave the flag for lesbians?' " and I said, " 'Are you crazy?' Because that would be too public. That would be too ... That wasn't me."

But when a KING-TV reporter approached Chow about her illness recently, she said she would do a story, but she wanted to finally talk about being gay, on her terms. It was, she told the reporter, her "last crusade."

After a career of standing up for children, Chow has a new focus now: her own child. A sign in her dining-room window says, "Welcome home Kai-ma," and Liliana's small backpacks and plastic princess shoes litter the living room. In July, wheelchair and all, Chow and Morningstar took Liliana to Disneyland. They had a blast, they said. At the Chinatown Parade in July, Liliana marched with the drill team in Chow's old dress, as the "mascot," just as Chow used to be.

"If I had a wish," Chow said, "I would wish that I could see my daughter walk across the stage as a graduate of high school, as Liliana Morningstar-Chow."

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @EmilyHeffter.

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