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."
"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.