Lez Plan a Wedding – Part I

I am flying back from one of the most beautiful, genuine, and enjoyable weddings that I have been to in quite some time. This wedding ceremony and reception was for my dear friend Ali (college roommate, friend, and field hockey teammate) and her long-time partner and love, Mike. The wedding took place in Connecticut, near the shore, against a stunning backdrop of water, clear skies, and a perfectly crisp fall evening.

Better yet, to celebrate this momentous occasion, many of our college friends were able to attend. Reunions like this are some of the best – we get to celebrate love while also feeling the love all around too. I laughed, danced, chatted, took photos, and felt an ease that is familiar when you are with people that you have known for a really long time. We cried happy tears when we saw Ali in her dress and celebrated when the announcement finally came: husband and wife!

As I fly back home to Denver and reflect on a weekend full of emotion, friends, and love, I cannot help but think about Chelsea and I, as we move forward and continue to plan for our own wedding in 2019. Sure, it is next year. And sure, it is not until August. However, for anyone that has planned something of this size, you know that logistics, details, and everything in between has to be discussed far in advance.

Chelsea and I have been engaged for a while – in many ways, this has made the engagement seasons have its own place (which I highly recommend). We did not jump into planning and dates and dresses. Yet, now that we have turned the corner of a double engagement, it is time to get to the books. And so, we have.

Chelsea and I have at least 10 excel sheets with information – everything from guest names, vendor ideas, budget items, and timelines that we have carefully curated from a variety of existing resources. What is unique, though, is that we are planning a wedding that does not fit a traditional mold. I mean, after all, we are two women and inherently, that creates difference (good difference, without question). Because of this, in many ways we are able to re-define how and what we do. And more than that, because there are few “models” for what an LGBTQ+ wedding entails, we are free to integrate old (or new) traditions as we wish and to re-think what a wedding even has to be. Let’s be real – that’s kind of awesome.

What exactly does that mean? Well, below are a few questions we have received here and there as we have jumped head-on into this adventure. This is only the beginning and I look forward to writing more about this journey of preparing for marriage and eventually, becoming Mrs. & Mrs. Oglesby.

Who asks who?

We had a double engagement. That means that we each proposed to one another at different times. However, for couples that are looking to get engaged, you can literally come up with any combination. Maybe only one person asks. Maybe both ask at the same time. Who knows! There are many variations and I think it is about what reflects the couple and what feels right.

Are you doing your bachelorette parties together? Your bridal shower?

When there are two brides, you have the opportunity to shift and explore distinctive ways to celebrate the upcoming nuptials. Chelsea and I decided early on that we did want to do a bridal shower together, however, we wanted to keep our bachelorette parties separate. We want the space to be with our friends separately while also joining together important women in our life, too. We look forward to planning these in the coming year.

Are you both wearing dresses?

Yes. Is it always that way for lesbians? No. Of course not. Anything we do is not necessarily the “lesbian way” to do it. Just like how opposite gender couples do not reflect ALL of that kind of relationship, the same goes for us too.

How in the world do you organize a bridal party?

Rule of thumb: invite the people you love to stand with you on your wedding day. Instead of thinking about bridal parties as composed of only a group of bridesmaids and a group of groomsmen, we see our bridal party as simply our bride tribe. The gender shouldn’t matter. For us, it doesn’t. We’ve chosen our most important friends – male and female – to stand with us during the ceremony and to dance with us afterwards. For us, this idea of community and inclusivity is what guides us.

Who walks you down the aisle?

Again, the important thing is that someone important, meaningful, and supportive is the person that escorts you into the ceremony. For Chelsea and me, this will be each of our dads.

We know that this is not always the case for couples – particularly LGBTQ+ couples that are not supported by their parents – and so another alternative is to walk each other down the aisle or to walk yourself, too. If there is a person that means that much to you, then of course, you can ask them as well.

What about the vows thing?

In addition to writing our own vows, we’re also planning to incorporate recited vows that we’ll say together. We like the idea of adding our own creativity while also making a sacred commitment.

However, LGBTQ+ couples can also use traditional liturgy – if they want. I think this is less common, but it does happen. Again, it’s about what feels right and reflects the sentiment and heart of the couple.

What do you do about non-affirming guests?

Ah, this is tricky. We are still diving into this, but Chelsea and I DO know that we want our day to feel full of love, acceptance, merriment, and joy. It will be absolutely essential for us to surround ourselves with people who love us for us. Should individuals feel uncomfortable attending a lesbian wedding, then it’s worth a conversation about whether to attend our not. We want a peaceful, blissful day, one that is not tainted with differing opinions, ideas, or thoughts about the sanctity of our relationship.

Do you have to follow all the typical wedding traditions or protocol?

So, while we’re early in the wedding planning process there are some traditions we already know that we will not be integrating into the ceremony or reception. These include the bouquet toss and garter toss. We don’t find these traditions to be particularly relevant – both from a gender and modern perspective. Also, we are definitely not planning a seating chart. The main reason we don’t want to do this? We feel like people should sit where they want to sit. We want our families and friends to feel open to connecting and meeting, and so a more fluid seating chart may help us get there.

However, there are some wonderful, traditional aspects of weddings that we plan on adding to our day. As we both have immensely important people that won’t be with us (i.e. some of our grandparents) we want to make sure we can honor their presence and influence on our lives. We’ll be having an empty chair and hopefully photographs in certain places to remind us of their life and memory. Additionally, we’ll absolutely be doing a first dance with one another and dancing with our dads. Both of these symbolic acts represent a transition in our lives and we feel that it’s important to call attention to. It might look different, but we are eager to explore the options that come with these acts.

Our wedding planning is really just beginning. To say that I am ecstatic is a major understatement. There is no other human that I would rather spend my life with. So, planning all of this with her is just a total bonus.

 

ubukwe | wedding

I’m not too good at singing; nor am I capable of discipline when eating ice cream, but, I can say with certainty that I have a strong knack for getting invited to Rwandan weddings.

This, literally, is what I do. Even in Denver.

When I attended a 300-guest East African wedding last week, I expected the small nods to Rwandan culture. You know, the traditional dress of umushanana (fabric draped over the shoulder in all different styles; a dress central to the heritage of Rwandan social ques). Maybe the proper foods (I’m thinking plantains, rice, and beans) would also be present, as well as demonstrations of Rwandan-style dancing.

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Plantains, Potatoes, Cassava Leaves, Fruit, Chapati, Rice, Cassava Bread, Doughnuts, Beans – just to name a few. 

I expected these things, but what I also (wrongly) assumed was that a glass-like wall would separate the nuances of an East African wedding in the United States.

I was incorrect to think that geography can mitigate the love for culture and tradition. Geography, I learned, has very little to do with the identity of the heart.

In fact, in the nearly 50 Rwandan weddings I have attended (yes, I have a “wedding tracker list”), this most recent wedding in Denver might have been the “most Rwandan” of all.

So, that begs the question, what makes it “Rwandan” exactly?

For 15 hours, I observed, took part, and engaged in conversation that re-aligned my original thinking. You see, this family and larger community were committed to creating a Rwandan ceremony because they are so far from home.

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“I do.”

My brain could hardly handle the layers of culture, connections, languages, and traditions played out in front of me.

The smells of the room; the accents of language; the babies wrapped in loud fabrics on the backs of many women; the selections of beer; the handshakes of new friends – all of it. It felt like I was in a world not here, and honestly, not there either. It was altogether new.

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Moreover, I realized how malleable culture can be even in a determination to stick closely to it; I met young men and women who could speak Kinyarwanda, but do not have memories of living in their home country. Instead, they grew up in refugee camps and have a deep longing to return home someday. They asked me about what it is like to grow up around cows and banana beer and Sunday church. Y’all, it was weird. Talk about a new kind of culture shock!

One gentleman, Mugema, shed tears as he explained the way he carries Rwanda in his heart here. He lives in a more rural part of Colorado and he doesn’t know many people. His community places identifiers on him – “Tanzanian” or “African” – but he insists, “Through and through, I am Rwandan.”

I came to see that the purest expression of our culture is extraordinarily natural. Numerous individuals approached me and asked, “are you Rwandan?”

They asked this in spite of my skin color. And, this wasn’t a tongue-in-cheek sort of thing. It was a real question.

They said that, “We see you interacting with our family, our friends. You know how to do it! Sure, you speak our language, but somehow you are one of us.”

The things is, I wasn’t really trying that hard. It was natural. It was learnt. It was exposure. It was what is inside my heart.

We can’t explain how these things happen. How people’s lives and journeys cross and align and create this amazing mixture of life. Culture is life, and honestly, I can’t get enough of it.

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Waiting for the groom and bride to arrive. 

My feet were sore as I drove home. I turned off my music, preferring silence in the twilight hours of morning. I prayed a prayer of gratitude, feeling as if I had returned to a really special place in my identity. I let the thoughts flow freely from my mind – I was overwhelmed by the number of stories I had heard about moving and finding oneself in a new place.

I’m excited to be a part of this. Whether it’s here or there, it doesn’t really matter. Because who we are is not bound by the lines we have placed in the world.

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The getaway vehicle. It’s Colorado, so clearly, a Jeep.

diaspora, denver style.

Cramped in the corner of a living room in the center of a Denver housing project, I watch 20 Rwandans and Burundians discuss a community wedding back and forth, like a game of ping-pong. Holding treasured blue and black pens, with a tentative agenda, the leader of the family reads necessary purchases to be made: “rice, plantains, meat, beans, cassava, soda, beer…”

Like a quick lesson in school, I learn the various places in Denver and Aurora that members of the African community shop for their preferred items: some consumer goods are available in bulk at Sam’s Club; others are carried at smaller African markets; still others are found at one of the restaurant depots for shop owners. Jacqueline, the wife of the appointed leader of this discussion, explains that because the venue, AfrikaMall will cost the family nearly $4,000, they are trying to discuss how to budget the food costs accordingly.

Everyone will contribute, that much is clear, and I smirk, realizing that culture is so powerful in its ability to take root anywhere even if existing in diaspora.

I lean in close, with a cool beer in hand. The bottles of Heineken, Leffe, and Coke create a centerpiece by which everyone operates. Men, predominantly, sit on the brown, leather couch, while women are stationed in the back of the room. I sit with Terese, Jacqueline, Maria, and Charlotte. They gaze at me – but they don’t stare. When they realize I can understand a great deal of what’s happening (who knew Kinyarwanda could be so useful?), I don’t hear calls of “umuzungu.” Instead, the women nod their heads in agreement, “ari wacu.” She’s ours.

Watching with intrigue, I felt like I was drinking up the culture like a large glass of cool lemonade; refreshing, sweet, and oddly familiar. The movements of arms; the gestures of body language; the smells of food cooking in the kitchen with stuffy air filling the room – it was all recognizable. I could hardly contain myself. I forgot how deeply embedded my passion for Rwanda is.

It smelled like Rwanda. It felt like Rwanda. It sounded like Rwanda.

The accents were like my friends greeting each other with hugs and handshakes; the colorful, traditional fabrics brought back the clothing choices you see on a Sunday morning in Rwanda; and most powerfully, it felt as if I had transplanted another world I knew into the world I had grown up in.

The collision of culture is a wonderfully fascinating thing; I admired the way in which this sub-culture was maintaining their identities in a world so different from their own.

As the family meeting came to an end (with a chosen date of June 26th for the wedding), I had a funny notion that overwhelmed all of my thoughts; what if all of that had somehow prepared me for all of this?

That being my life in Rwanda; this being the life I have now – and the new community I had just discovered.

*

When the formalities of the planning fell away, the questions about my own marital status became the focus of conversation. That didn’t take long, I thought to myself. I explained that I’m waiting and seeking a partner that loves Jesus, is adventurous, loves helping people, and can make me laugh. And, for good measure, I said they would have to have at least 100 cows in their family to give to my father. You see, the sharing of cows (read: money) is an old Rwandan tradition that I knew this family would find hilarious for me to be aware of. They laughed until beer spit out of their mouths. A good joke, indeed. When I mentioned my liking for banana beer, I think one of them might have peed their pants.

Some of the women went to the kitchen to attend to the food for the evening – cassava bread and isombe. I don’t think it was an accident that we would be eating one of my favorite foods (isombe – a leafy dish). I couldn’t stop smiling.

As the room became a bit smaller, I sat with Maria, a 27-year old Burundian mother who moved to the United States 8 years ago, by way of Tanzania. She lived in a refugee camp for 10 years. 10 years. Her family had arrived following the violence and genocide in Burundi in 1997; yet both of her parents died in the camp.

Slowly, but confidently, she shared more of her story. I didn’t have to ask too many questions, she embraced the conversation with enthused openness and interest without much prompting. She had lived in Virginia for a number of years but eventually came to Colorado after she married at 20. Now, with two children, her and her husband work to support their family tirelessly. She works at a nursing home as a cook. She loves the way she can lose herself in the process; it’s freeing for her. Still, she maintains big dreams: she wants to be an accountant. One day, she says, one day.

I asked the family what they felt like when they were in the airplane, coming to America. Some chuckled and said they thought they might die. But, Maria, she shook her head,

oh no, I felt so happy. I felt free. I felt like my life had a chance.”

 As we sat together, ready to share a meal as a family does, I mentioned that I would be happy to be a part of their small, close-knit community and help them in any way I could. Maybe that means helping with English from time to time. Perhaps, it might call for a bit of babysitting, too.

I made it clear: the time I had spent in Rwanda was possible because every day, someone helped me. That is no heavy exaggeration – I wouldn’t have made it in a new place, a new culture, without friends, support, and guidance.

Over these years, it has been brought to me in the deepest of provisions; and so, surely, I could pass it on.

“Ubuzima bwiza!”

Cheers. We clanked our bottles together, turned up the NBA basketball game, and gave celebration to the beauty of freedom and community.

As for me, I drove home that night, almost in tears. I had been praying for this – a sign of real, present community. I’ve been waiting. I didn’t know what it might look like. But that’s the kind of power that God holds; answered prayers often do not look like what we expect.

*

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something borrowed, something new

Bring something old, something borrowed, something new.

You can leave the banana beer at home.

A flower girl or two will be a definite plus, but you won’t need anyone to carry the traditional agaseke full of seed to represent a new life.

A cow exchange can probably wait, but do throw the bouquet. Rumor has it, the girl on the receiving end will be the next to marry.

Even before the wedding it’s different. Out that way, long negotiations full of fanta, riddles, and family meetings often take place before a bride can really have permission to marry her sheri (lover). Over on this side of the pond, some men ask the bride’s father’s permission for their daughter’s hand in marriage. Some don’t.

In our country, weddings might look like this:

In Rwanda you get a little more of this:

*

I found myself at a wedding last week, giving a speech in front of 273 people (or something like that) thinking, wowThis is different.

It wasn’t just any wedding either; this was LAUREN’S wedding. You know, Lauren, one of my best friends from college. Lover of all things St. Louis, dedicated fan of a plethora of super heroes, and an old field hockey teammate of mine back from Hendrix. It was an honor to be there – an even bigger honor to witness her become a wife and support her on the big day. I mean, just look at this happy, gorgeous girl.

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laurena

The thing is, I hadn’t been to an American wedding in oh….well, a long time. I was overjoyed to see those American wedding traditions that I sure did miss. The ring exchange. The father-daughter dance. And the entire experience that is the reception. Of course, every wedding is extremely different, but American weddings tend to have some overarching themes that tell us a lot about our culture.

While I’m entering something like month 5 of being home, the context for a wedding was yet another adjustment.

Every wedding that I have been to in the last couple of years – and trust me when I say there were many – involved at least three separate and distinct ceremonies (civil, religious, and traditional), intense family involvement, ceremonial gift-giving, and often some kind of reference to a cow. Yep. Cows. In fact, the music video above – from Rwanda – is a song all about the cultural representation of the familial exchange of cow and bride. It’s a big deal. You can note 2:02 in the Rwandan wedding video above – it’s pretty self-explanatory.

Lauren’s wedding didn’t have a cow, had only one marriage ceremony, and while family involvement was key, I am pretty certain Lauren and Stephen’s families did not sit formally to meet each other multiple times, sharing “riddles’ to engage in a dialogue to negotiate the terms of uniting families. Somehow, I just don’t think that happened.

And so, as I stood front and center with Michelle to give our maid-and-matron-of-honor speech, I couldn’t help but just take it all in for both the similarities and differences. Somehow I had gone from this:

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to this:

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in the span of a year.

The dresses, food, music, ceremony, vows, order, and atmosphere are completely and utterly different from each other.

*

Nothing quite captures a village wedding, but really, it’s equally hard to explain what it felt like to stand by my best friends and send off one of our hey girl hey girls into marriage.

It was special.

It doesn’t really matter whether you’re taking part in Rwanda, America, or another random part of the world, weddings are always fun (well, I should say usually), important, and unique for that bride and groom. Maybe that’s the best part of them – you bring in so many variances of culture and values while also coupling this with your own personal tastes and relationship that create a day that truly is your own.

I attended something like 15 weddings in a couple years in Rwanda, and so I feel pretty well versed in the topic. Now that I think about it, it’s quite possible that I attended more weddings in two years in Rwanda than I had previously my entire life back home. That’ll blow your mind a bit, won’t it?

I love weddings. I think I always will. And if wedding season from my last year in Rwanda is any indication, well then I’ll be in for quite a ride this go-around back in the US.

And if you’re even more curious, here’s a little more of a look – from real weddings I attended in Rwanda – into what the wedding thing kind of looks like in a different part of the world.