Although the concept of testimonials generally refers to first-person narratives, there is no universally-accepted definition and testimonials can be thought about in a variety ways (e.g. direct or indirect account, intersubjective conversation, activism, research interview, work of art, etc.). Moreover, testimonials do not occur in a vacuum. They are personal declarations that often link to experiences shared more broadly within a community, past or present.
The concept of “testimonial cultures”
Although generally considered to be spontaneous, public or media testimonials (of a person’s HIV status, sexual orientation or gender identification, experience in sex work, etc.) also have a social dimension that is in large part constructed or prefabricated.
Beyond the person who gives a testimonial, social interactions involving a range of people, organizations, and practices must be taken into consideration. Because testimonials bring together a range of knowledge, media technologies, and symbols, the term “testimonial cultures” provides a way to consider and reflect upon broader social and cultural dynamics.
Sociologist Kenneth Plummer has described the connections between a society’s dominant culture and sub-cultures associated with personal and private storytelling. These connections are dynamic and traversed by complex relations of power (exclusion, solidarity, democracy, etc.).
To examine the testimonial cultures of people who belong to minority groups based on sexual or gender identities or experiences, interactions among four key levels must be considered:
- The people who give testimonials;
- The people who accompany and support them and help to co-produce testimonials;
- Audiences on the receiving end;
- Media, technological, and social contexts.
The notion of “sexual and gender communities”
There is no expression to bring together the authors of personal stories or testimonies on sexuality, gender expression, sexual or gender identity, sex work, non-monogamy, trans identities, living with HIV or developing the gender body. However, the authors of these stories have several issues in common:
- They care about diversity and inclusion.
- They have experienced or are vulnerable to criminalization and social control.
- They tackle subjects that are taboo in the eyes of public opinion, but which attract attention.
- They put their privacy or reputation at stake.
- They have experienced stigma and violence, including violence against gender norms.
Bringing together social groups marginalized by sex and gender norms does not mean that sexual and gender communities are based on one identity or the same experiences. We must not erase the differences and specificities of community experiences and these militant postures. Social groups are not mutually exclusive.
Furthermore, the language of the community allows us to highlight what these people have in common: the desire to expose the stigma, the non-recognition, and the violence they experience from medical, legal, policiary, and cultural institutions. They want to be heard, recognized and be able to exist in society.