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The Queens Of Cape Town

© Lee-Ann Olwage

Cape Town has a vibrant drag tradition that dates back to the Thirties, especially in the diverse District Six community. There’s been an eruption of sequins, glitter, tassels and beauty pageants, however, it`s often hosted by backwood clubs, catering to a select few who know where to find them.

The Queens of Cape Town is a photographic project that explores the world of drag queen beauty pageants and aims to look beyond the glitz and glamour of stilettos, glitter and tiaras to highlight the importance of safe spaces where queer bodies are celebrated. The series explores the universal narrative of gender identity within a South Africa context, creating an interesting background as a key player in the fight for human rights globally.

The Miss Gay pageants have a long and interesting history and dates back to the pre- Apartheid era. The pageants initially had to take place in secrecy, hidden from the view of Apartheid authorities when any gay activities were totally unacceptable. Today, not only is homosexuality allowed, but the LGBTQ+ community have the right to marry and adopt children. It’s the only country in Africa to allow such freedoms. But everything is not perfect and attacks against the LGBTQ+ community still happen on a regular basis.

The majority of LGBTQ+ South Africans still face an overwhelming climate of discrimination and violence despite protections promised to them in the country’s constitution. “It will be much easier, over time, to change attitudes towards race than it would be to alter beliefs about sexuality.” - Rector Jonathan Jansen University of Free State

The Miss Gay pageants provide a platform for individuals to express themselves in a space where the LGBTQ+ community feels safe and where queer bodies are celebrated. “The pageants thus become a vehicle to educate communities, to respect and show tolerance towards people from diverse sexual orientation, cultural, religious and racial backgrounds. By deconstructing and breaking down the barriers of shame and intolerance important steps are taken in creating a just and equitable society.” - Enigma Von Hamburg pageant director from EVH Empire

The pageants act as a unique and intimate family space where members of the Cape Town LGBTQ+ community feel safe. More importantly these are spaces where members of the LGBTQ+ community are free to express themselves on a platform where they are celebrated.

The pageants draw an extremely diverse audience and anyone from non-competing drag queens, to entire families dressed in their Sunday best can be found in the audience. These temporary spaces of celebration crosses racial and religious divides and serve as encouragement for individuals who don’t get the same level of support in the outside world.

By exposing the artificiality of both femininity and masculinity within the social constructs of society, the pageants also serve as a tool for political and social change by challenging the status quo. Beyond their bold makeup, drag queens are standing up for the right to play and tease with gender and strip away the ‘traditional’ views of what gender is. Drag queens thrive to push the envelope of gender and force the audience to realise the extensive complexity of gender representation and sexuality.

click to view the complete set of images in the archive

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