Heather Newell is a guest writer whose voice we’re honored to share. You can read more about Heather in her bio at the end of the piece.
I spent over a third of my twenties living, breathing, and working in Rwanda, the small East African country known for its delicious Arabica coffee and the horrific 1994 genocide. Dubbed the “land of a thousand hills” Rwanda is inexpressibly stunning with its ornate, rolling green tea plots, bean fields, and banana plantations.
The beginnings of my life in Rwanda took place in an Eastern rural village that valued fresh milk, fat goats, Sunday visits to family, and most prominently, God. The United States Peace Corps decided I would be a good fit for this community as an English Secondary School teacher.
More than a culmination of projects and classroom lessons, my life in Rwanda probed me in pursuit of self-identity as I re-visited questions of my sexual orientation. Despite an unshakeable knowing of who I was since a young girl, I was too fearful to live authentically as a gay woman. I spent years of layered, internal resistance to “being gay” and hence, ignoring and denying that I might have been born differently than my friends, neighbors, and much of the population of our world.
With coinciding trepidation and fearlessness, the possibility of my gayness came to the surprising forefront of my humble, simple life when I started to fall in love with a Rwandan woman in my village. Friends at first; we took long walks and shared about our worlds – and each other. Soon, we were visiting each other regularly, and one night, in the thick, hot air of East Africa, she kissed me.
Laying side by side, I was at first paralyzed from her intimate touch. I could have turned in or turned away. I turned in. Of course I turned in. I knew instinctively that this night would be a marker for the rest of my life, even without fully knowing that the relationship would last over a year, within the boundaries of Rwanda, but also beyond, across cultural barriers and physical oceans.
What I would fully know though, on the cusp of falling asleep that night, was that I was undoubtedly gay.
While together in Rwanda, our relationship was a hushed secret. Much like most of the region, being gay is taboo. No one could know. However, keeping secrets doesn’t apply to the vast, wide love we experience with God. As feelings began to form, blossom, and radiate, I simultaneously wrote and prayed regularly about what was happening to me.
God, be with me. Guide me. Show me how to hold this in my heart. Prepare me to be who I need to be.
Though I attended a rural, conservative church in my community, I continued to vigorously meet God there – and in other places, people, and experiences, too. I found that the more I lived and entered a space of authenticity, the more that God provided the encouragement, resources, and hope that I could live as myself – anywhere in the world. Still, and quite desperately, I asked for approval, for help, and for acceptance. I didn’t find this in church. I found this in Jesus. Instead of scouring the Bible for answers that maintained a perspective of “right” or “wrong”, I read the Bible as a song and story that captures the God that created the heavens, the earth – and me. God, be with me. Guide me. Show me how to hold this in my heart. Prepare me to be who I need to be.
If God created me like this, I thought, then how could loving a woman and loving God be anything less than beautiful?
When I left Rwanda the first time, my heart broke. I would miss the country that had become a home for me. I would long for my friends, for my students, and for the relationship that had released a previously untapped part of me. Most profoundly, and painfully, my life in Rwanda allowed me to be true to my sexuality and myself, and the physical separation from the place felt like it would be a separation from my identity as well.
Re-entering the United States a newly awakened woman, I entered an absorption of all previous rigid, religious cultural traditions and norms – including heteronormativity. No matter how God had broken through my stubborn resistance for truth, I remained willing to compromise my identity as to avoid rejection.
I understood, cognitively, what my faith was telling me: God loved me for who I am. I had analyzed scripture, read historical annotations, and yet continued to have an arduous time believing it. I returned to Rwanda once. Twice. And again, three times, each time hoping that I would find the same comfort I had found when I first came out to myself. With each trip, I realized that a country couldn’t give that kind of identity to me. Rwanda had catalyzed me, but it had to be God that freed me.Courage is hard to muster, but I think that when you find it, God will always, always take care of you.
I started to unpack layers of my life that held me captive from understanding who I was. I shared intimately with my counselor about challenges I had faced as a young girl, hoping to finally find healing amidst regret, disappointment, and pain; I made new friends in circles of rugby women (knowing I would absolutely find positive role models of “out” women); and, most importantly, I began to share my story with others, acknowledging that I was, in fact, gay. As I did, I found community at a Denver church, recently and outwardly “inclusive” and began a new relationship with a woman I love deeply. Courage is hard to muster, but I think that when you find it, God will always, always take care of you. Living openly terrifies me sometimes, but because I trust God, I can move forward, boldly and without hesitation.
On a recent work trip from the U.S. to the East African country, I was pressed to consider: will you tell your Rwandan friends you are gay? Will you tell them about your relationship with your partner?
I don’t know how to tell people about the woman I love. Though my first same-sex relationship occurred in Rwanda, it was a shameful secret. Now, my current relationship is public and celebrated – but not here. Not in Rwanda.
Though I don’t know how I will handle the practicalities of “coming out” in this culture, I am comforted because I know that God is fully present and attune to this experience. I know this because I see God in it. Culture is a powerful force of expectation and tradition and yet it is our faith that can re-define and re-shape this. God will bring opportunities to speak truth when I need it. Until then, I will love God, grateful for the entirety of this journey. Also, I will love myself by remaining committed to who I am: uniquely, and wholly, and cross-culturally, gay.
Heather Newell is a freelance writer, a Denver-native, a Christian, and gay woman. Her writing has been featured in Communal Table, Africa Agenda, Peace Corps, and The Her Initiative. By day, Heather is a Program Manager for The Women’s Bakery, a social enterprise that empowers women through education and business. She deeply loves working on issues related to women’s empowerment because she believes that women are perhaps the most dynamic, strong, and incredible force on earth. She enjoys being outside in the Colorado sunshine, rollerblading, traveling, watching documentaries, drinking black coffee in the morning (red wine at night), and advocating and working on refugee issues. For more dialogue with Heather or to follow her work, find her on Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, or email.