Culture & Arts

Meet The 'Rainbow Girls,' The Proud And Beautiful Lesbian Community Of South Africa

Many of Julia Gunther's photographic subjects have faced oppression, discrimination and isolation before they were 20 years old. Many were pushed out of their homes and ostracized from their families. They faced atrocities including rape, beatings and expulsion. All because these women are living proudly as lesbians in South Africa.

"The only difference between Apartheid and now, is that blacks are suppressing blacks," Gunther wrote in an email to The Huffington Post. The combination of injustice and bravery compelled Gunther to document these women and their remarkable stories.

"My name is Terra, and I was born in Cape Town on 21st April 1989. I got kicked out of the house when I was 16 years old because I’m a lesbian. Up until then, I lived a secret lesbian life and living a lie is very difficult; you have to come out and be yourself."

"There were two elements I wanted to capture through the ‘Rainbow Girls’ photographs," Gunther explained of her photography series. "The first: the strength and pride with which these women live, often under very difficult circumstances. And the second, after I had heard about the Miss Lesbian competition [an annual event organized by FreeGender, a black lesbian organization in Khayelitsha township, Cape Town, South Africa]. For me this was the perfect example of the kind of pride these women feel for who they are. Their unflinching defiance and their refusal to accept the repressive attitudes that dominate South Africa."

Miss Lesbian 2012 Inga

The Miss Lesbian pageant is run by Funeka Soldaat, a lesbian community activist and iconic figure within the LGBTI community of South Africa. Gunther met Soldaat first in 2012 and again in 2014, when she took her photograph. "Once I heard about the Miss Lesbian competition (mind you that was a day prior!) I knew I had to go to Khayelitsha and try to photograph it."

Funeka Soldaat

"Most of these girls are in their twenties," Gunther explained, "some still go to school, some work and some don't. The nine contestants were performing three different outfits during this beauty pageant -- school uniform, beach wear and cocktail night."

"The town hall was filled with a celebrating young crowd of people that all came together to vote for the Miss Lesbian 2012. Loud music, dancing and beautifully dressed people and a wide open door inviting the township to come in and celebrate with them. I was deeply impressed by this party and walked backstage to try and get in touch with the contestants. Standing in the middle of all the girls and announcing who I was and that I would like to take pictures of everybody if they let me to... If you stay genuine and honest and speak from the heart –- whoever you want to photograph will give in and help you to show the truth. After photographing the contestants at the beauty competition, I was able to arrange several meetings with different women in their homes, and in a women's shelter. The women also began to open up to me, telling me about their difficult lives."

Gunther photographs her subjects in bold colors and defiant glances, emphasizing their confidence and iconoclasm in the face of their still ignorant surroundings. "The Rainbow Girls" series is part of Gunther's larger "Proud Women of Africa" project, which was initiated in 2008. "All of the women in my pictures have suffered in some way," she told Feature Shoot. "They’ve been ostracized by society, are desperately poor, or have experienced terrible injustice. But they are also all still proud. Proud of who they are, of their lives and the love they represent."

"My Name is Zelda and I am 28 years old, and I’m a lesbian woman. I’m having problems at home because of my sexual orientation. I’ve not been tolerated for my sexuality, and I have never been accepted to live my life freely, and I’ve been told to change if I want any support."

Despite the sad reality many of Gunther's subjects face, her colorful photos are imbued with hope for a better, more open-minded future. "I’d like to show that the attitudes towards gender and sexuality are slowly changing in South Africa. From generation to generation things will get better. What my Rainbow Girls are struggling with at the moment will be less of a fight two generations from now. Whereas twenty or thirty years ago, being gay was simply not accepted in South Africa, it has now become an issue of social groups. By being in a group that is more accepting and open minded you can live your life the way you want. Which is the case for the more urban and white populations in South Africa. But if, like the Rainbow Girls, you come from a poor and black community, being a lesbian can result in exile, rape, or death. So I think it's now more of a social cultural caste. But I do believe, slowly, things are changing for the better."

Images from Rainbow Girls are on view at GRID Cape Town Biennial at The Castle of Good Hope until March 15th. Feel the beauty and power of the subjects in the images below and let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Miss Lesbian 2012 Groupshot
Miss Lesbian, 2012. Getting Ready
Miss Lesbian 2012 Nana & Sino
Miss Lesbian 2012 Sino
Miss Lesbian 2012 Vee
Miss Lesbian 2012 Inga
Terra at home
"My Name is Zelda and I am 28 years old, and I’m a lesbian woman. I’m having problems at home because of my sexual orientation. I’ve not been tolerated for my sexuality, and I have never been accepted to live my life freely, and I’ve been told to change if I want any support. My parents threw me out of the house and told me to never come back until I change or bring a child as a woman or bring a man of my own to them to witness that I have changed. This situation has been stressing me a lot, and it has been going on for a long time. I feel like taking my life because I can’t bare such pain in my family house. It made me lose focus and interests in life. I just don’t know what to do. I need help to feel welcomed and wanted since I’ve never felt wanted by my own biological parents and I don’t know where to go. I’m just praying that I can have a roof over my head for my safety because I have never been protected at home, and at times, I would encounter hate speeches and violence in the street, and when I report it to my family, they will just say change if you want to live free because I am living a fake and evil life, and that’s why I’m coming across such bad things. For me, it’s of no use to stay at home because I’m not safe at home and outside where I live. People are telling me that they are going to get me and rape me because my family members are talking badly about me to other community members while they don’t want me at home."
"My name is Terra, and I was born in Cape Town on 21st April 1989. I got kicked out of the house when I was 16 years old because I’m a lesbian. Up until then, I lived a secret lesbian life and living a lie is very difficult; you have to come out and be yourself. I started living with my grandparents, who were very strict and taught me to be disciplined. Life was hard but you always have to remember –- if I’m not gonna make it through this –- who is going to make it for me? The name Terra is a butch name, and it gives me respect where I live. I’m not safe living in Gugulethu as a black lesbian. I’m not safe in my community. I’m not safe in South Africa, and I will never be safe. I’m living in fear but with the respect I got, I seem to be able to stay out of trouble. There are people who discriminate and criticize me when I walk down the street with my girlfriend. The community can break people’s heart by being harsh with their presumptions, but we all have to fight hate crime; otherwise, I think we will always be the victim. We have our own freedom and shouldn’t live in fear. I’m making a documentary right now about the hidden, untold, and painful stories in the townships by lesbian women that need to be heard. We need to talk about it ’cause these women are ashamed, ashamed of themselves. They think they must have done something wrong, but they didn’t do anything wrong! The got raped -- they didn’t choose to be raped. Being a victim is very painful; living in fear is very painful. Even though they hate us, rape us and kill us all we have is love! We love each other and they can’t break us ’cause we are gonna fight -- new generations like us. We are able to respect and love people here in our community, and our townships need to know this. It’s not the Apartheid from a long time ago; it’s Apartheid amongst ourselves in the black community."
Terra on Long
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