Almost a year ago, Erika Highstead and Sarah Musick rented a party space, dressed in their finest and vowed their commitment to each other in front of a hundred friends.
“By the power I truly wish was vested in me, I now pronounce you married,” Bryan Currie, the friend who officiated at their May 26 wedding, said, ending the ceremony with a mix of humor and frustration about a kind of marriage not recognized in the law.
Eleven months later, the recognition the newlyweds longed for on their wedding day is far closer to reality. Highstead and Musick will be among the first wave of couples signing their paperwork today as Colorado’s civil union law goes into effect. Although civil unions are only one step toward full marriage equality, they will afford same-sex partners legal rights that Highstead and Musick know all too well how painful it can be to live without.
Musick, 30, and Highstead, 34, met seven years ago at a coaching company where both were working in Colorado Springs. Musick secretly crushed on Highstead, figuring the mom with a three-year-old son was out of her league.
“When she actually reciprocated my interest, I was knocked off my seat. And it has been that way all along ever since,” Musick says. “It’s one of those mutual loves where neither person is far ahead or behind the other in their affection. It’s the deep, good kind of love that as a child you hope you’ll find some day.”
The vision of adult love that Musick’s family instilled in her looked far different than the relationship she shares with Highstead. Musick was raised in a log cabin on a farm in Virginia by a Southern Baptist minister and a stay-at-home mom. The family winced and quickly changed the topic when their eldest child expressed her attraction to girls. When Musick was caught having a relationship with a female student at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, she was nearly kicked out of school and was made to undergo counseling for homosexuality, which was treated as a disorder. She also was sent for a semester in Colorado Springs, where a series of Focus on the Family seminars aimed to deprogram her from a sexual orientation that her family and educators deemed deviant and sinful.
If anything, Focus on the Family’s attempts to “cure” her fortified Musick’s strength to come out to her parents. They tried dissuading her several times until they ultimately rejected her and cast her off with a warning: “The last thing they said is ‘Don’t tell anyone you were born this way and don’t ever say it was our fault.’” In their view, she says, her sexuality was a pock upon her father’s church.
“How I was feeling and how I was experiencing the world was extremely wrong based on the community I was raised in,” she says. “The way my parents saw it, it was all about Satan trying his hardest to drag me under. They felt like God told them to stop accepting me or they were going to burn for it. That’s their position and they were holding fast.”
Musick decided to build a life in Colorado Springs where, despite its religious-right reputation, she and Highstead have built a strong support system and wide web of friends. Together with Highstead’s ex-husband, the two share the responsibility of raising 9-year-old Jack, who calls his mom’s partner “Smom,” short for “Sarah Mom.” Aside from occasional strangers casting disapproving glances, both say they lived without any overt discrimination until 2010 when Musick experienced what she now describes as her “terrible intentional.”
A job loss, financial strains and grief over having been rejected by her family triggered a deep depression that led to a multi-step, grandiose suicide attempt. In one night, she tried hanging herself on a tree near their apartment. When that failed, she stumbled inside to drink an entire bottle of tequila and take “every pill in the house.” Still alive hours later, she tried to seal the deal by hanging herself in the shower with a dog leash.
Highstead, who is a nurse, found her partner barely breathing. She performed CPR and rushed her to a Colorado Springs hospital where it was unclear whether Musick, on life support, would live or die. What happened next was the scenario many same-sex couples most fear.
“The nurse came out and asked me if I had medical power of attorney,” Highstead says. “As soon as I heard those words, it just hit me like a bag of bricks. I honestly didn’t want to answer the question because I knew what it meant. I shook my head no and they said her family had to be called. I said her family is not involved in her life, she is excommunicated from her family, there’s no relationship there.”
During Musick’s first days in the hospital, she was moved from the intensive care unit onto a different floor without Highstead being informed. A nurse tried to boot Highstead out of her partner’s hospital room.
“Here I was, estranged from my family. Erika is the person I would want making decisions, but on paper she had no authority,” Musick says. “This is one of the ways civil unions matter – that in life-threatening situations, we have rights regarding the health and well being of our partners.”
Recovering from her suicide attempt and regaining her will to live entailed a long, arduous process coming to terms with her parents’ rejection. It helped, Musick says, to have married the woman she loves last spring in a ceremony celebrated with dozens of friends and surrogate family members. It helps, too, that, through a sperm donor, Highstead is carrying a child they’re expecting around Thanksgiving. By the time the baby is born, Musick will have the right to adopt him or her, thanks to the civil union they’ll enter into today by signing a few forms at the clerk and recorder’s office.
It’s not an occasion for which they’ll dress up or send out invitations. Rather, they say, it’s a more quiet, albeit hard-earned and long-awaited rite of passage that will allow them to care for each other in sickness and in health.
By the time their paperwork is filed tonight night, Musick, Highstead and their unborn baby will be a family under Colorado law — if not in the eyes of Musick’s parents or the religious right movement that was as unsuccessful trying to strip her of her identity as it was this year fighting to kill the civil unions bill at the Statehouse. The union means far more than a legal technicality. It gives Musick a home, of sorts, in a state that has come to recognize her definition of family.
“There were broken pieces that resulted in a broken person,” she says. “And this is part of putting that person back together.”