‘Rainbow Girls’ – The Defiant Lesbian Community of South Africa
Photography: Julia Gunther
Words: Darcie Imbert
Violence against women is widespread with deeply entrenched patriarchal practises piercing all corners of the globe. Julia Gunther’s photographic documentary series Rainbow Girls takes us to South Africa, where she explores the oppression experienced by lesbian women in the townships of Gugulethu and Khayelitsha. Despite the outwardly projected image of South Africa as a progressive nation, and recent legislative overhaul that safeguards human rights, women and children still remain subject to high levels of violence.
Lesbian women in South Africa face obscene discrimination, living in fear of the growing phenomenon termed ‘corrective rape’, a hate crime committed by men who rape homosexual women to ‘correct’ their sexual orientation. Meghan Morrissey provides an interesting insight into the discourse around corrective rape in Womyn’s Studies in Communication, she explores the common argument that some black African communities believe homosexuality is un-African and is the product of colonialization. The quoted content within the piece implied that homosexuality is an exclusively white experience, and by distancing African culture from the practise, black lesbians are subsequently marginalised. The only way to regain their place within black African culture is to alter their sexual orientation, so men commit corrective rape to supposedly force this transition as a ‘rite of passage’ back into society.
The prevalence of homophobic hate crime in South Africa is particularly startling when considering their juridical victories in solidifying gay rights. It’s 1997 constitution was among the first in the world to consolidate the equal rights of homosexuals, and was followed by a number of laws prohibiting discrimination in the workplace, and in 2005 a law was passed to decriminalise gay marriage.
Since the term corrective rape was first coined over ten years ago, few statistics have been compiled to capture the ubiquity of abuses against black African lesbians. According to South African charity Luleki Sizwe, more than 10 women are raped or gang-raped on a weekly basis. This brutal expression of patriarchal sadism has been normalised in South African culture and has somewhat tarnished a rich and enchanting nation.
The Rainbow Girls project, part of Julia Gunther’s ongoing series ‘Proud Women of Africa’, highlights the stoicism of the lesbian community in the light of such harrowing threats of violence, unwavering intimidation and the persistent fear of being cast out by their very own families. The bold photographs portray an unapologetic strength of identity and Gunther captures her subject’s refusal to submit to the discriminatory practises that pepper the socio-political landscape of South Africa.