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‘Rainbow Girls’ Shows South Africa’s Lesbian Community in Bold Contrast

Terra

In Terra’s own words: “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.”

Miss Lesbian 2012 Inga

Miss Lesbian 2012 Inga

In bursts of vibrant color, Julia Gunther‘s Rainbow Girls portraits chronicle the lives of lesbian women living in the Khayelitsha and Gugulethu Townships of Cape Town, South Africa. Gunther’s choice to work with such high contrast in her images is mirrored in the way the women live their lives–they themselves are in high contrast to traditional South African society, one that has forced many lesbian women to leave their homes because they live outside of what is considered the norm. Many of the women Gunther has photographed are violently threatened on a regular basis and many have been raped because local men consider the female attraction to women a threat in itself.

Gunther shot these images at Khayelitsha Township’s 2012 Miss Lesbian beauty pageant, at the local women’s shelter, and in Gugulethu Township at some of the women’s private homes. They are a part of Gunther’s larger series, Proud Women of Africa, which she began in 2008. As Gunther writes of the series, “All of the women in my pictures have suffered in some way: 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.”

When we look at Gunther’s Rainbow Girls, we’re invited to see these women as beautiful, unique, bright individuals fighting for change, perhaps a way they would wish to be seen by those who have rejected them, especially the ones they love. There is a supportive community in which many women participate, where they celebrate and accept each other, combating not only the oppression from the their outside world but the loneliness and isolation that often appears within themselves. Within Gunther’s images, we are able to see their love and respect for each other while also understanding the distress they experience, and because of this the images become powerful not just visually but emotionally.

Images from Rainbow Girls are on view at GRID Cape Town Biennial at The Castle of Good Hope until March 15th.

Miss Lesbian 2012 Vee & Nana

Miss Lesbian 2012 Vee & Nana

Miss Lesbian 2012 Zintle & Inga

Miss Lesbian 2012 Zintle & Inga

Siya

In Siya’s own words: “I’m Siya, 28 years old, and I was born and raised in Khayelitsha township of Cape Town.I have been volunteering since 2010 at Free Gender – a black lesbian organization based right here in Khayelitsha. My job is to develop young peoples; skills here in the community like painting, cooking, and also teaching primary school kids. I have a full time job working at a phone company, but I make time ‘cause I want to help. During the Miss Lesbian beauty competitions, I help organizing the event and prepping the presents. I’m supporting the girls in their self esteem, because they get scared, and don’t want to participate all of a sudden. I’m like a big sister and counsel where needed. The work is rewarding and humbling but also heavy, and you need to stay strong. The Miss Lesbian beauty pageant is our way of having fun, being happy and expressing ourselves. We are doing this for the younger generations to come.To be a feminine lesbian in Khayelitsha is a bit safer than living a butch lesbian life – because men will immediately spot the butch and get angry because in their eyes, these women want to take the place of a man. Khayelitsha is our home too. We grew up here and we are claiming our streets. You can’t be scared all the time. You cannot stay scared. We are a collective, a lot of us together, standing up.”

Miss Lesbian 2012 Getting Ready

Miss Lesbian, 2012. Getting Ready

Miss Lesbian 2012 Groupshot

Miss Lesbian 2012 Groupshot

Bulelwa

In Bulelwa’s own words: “My name is Bulelwa, and I am 36 years old and live with my partner and my son which is 4 years old this year. When I was young, I had to leave my house to keep the peace between my parents and me because of my sexuality. After my parents passed away, things changed. My siblings did not look at me the same way and told me I have to stay away from our house because I am going to teach their children to be gay. To me, it was a surprise because I used to keep their children for the weekend. I was told that I am not welcome back. At the moment, I am fighting for my rights, and I want to show then I belong in the same house as them. I have hope that one day I will be free from all the problems that my family is creating for me. Now I work for Inclusive and Affirming Ministries (IAM) and we advocate that faith communities in Africa become more welcoming, inclusive, and affirming towards Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex (LGBTI) people. We have an IAM centre in Gugulethu township and offer shelter to girls and boys that are being cast out by their families because of their sexual orientation.”

Miss Lesbian 2012 Spmumeze

Miss Lesbian 2012 Spmumeze

Miss Lesbian 2012 Visitor

Miss Lesbian 2012 Visitor

Miss Lesbian 2012 Nana & Sino

Miss Lesbian 2012 Nana & Sino

Miss Lesbian 2012 Sino

Miss Lesbian 2012 Sino

Vee

Miss Lesbian 2012 Vee

Miss Lesbian 2012 Nozuko

Miss Lesbian 2012 Nozuko

Zelda

In Zelda’s own words: “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.”

Terra at home

Terra at home

Terra on Long

Terra on Long

All images © Julia Gunther

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