People who identify as lesbian, gay, and bisexual have achieved legal equality in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada, but much remains to be done. Prejudice and stigma persist, and sexual and gender minorities in many countries still face criminalization. Around the world, people from these groups use testimonials to explain and humanize issues, educate, raise awareness, wage political battles, and fight for social justice. That said, testimonials are understood and used in a variety of ways and the definition of what constitutes a testimonial can differ from one group or organization to another.
The issue of inclusion is of particular interest to the working committee on testimonials by people who identify as being part of a sexual or gender minority. “Who is more likely to end up giving a testimonial?” is one of the key questions committee members have examined. This question raises a range of intra-community issues given that some groups that are more easily accepted within the so-called “LGBT community” than others. The committee has also looked at the political dimension of giving testimonials. Can testimonials extend democracy? What issues are specific to trans identities? What can an anti-capitalist perspective offer? How are intersex people organizing to free themselves from medical control over their bodies and lives?
Testimonial types and the challenges of public disclosure
Several community groups involving people who identify as part of a sexual or gender minority participated in discussion activities organized by the Testimonial Cultures project, in particular a study day that took place in November 2012. These discussions touched on different objectives and experiences related to giving a testimonial, as well as the conditions under which testimonials are produced. Comparing different uses and practices of testimonials was also a key topic.
During the discussions, participants noted that testimonials can come in a wide variety of formats (zines, essays, poetry, blogs, videos, etc.) These formats can be used to give voice to those with little access to conventional media or institutional resources. It was also felt that people have more control over their message when giving testimonials in front of a group rather than to the media.
Furthermore, the use, distribution, and impact of testimonials are not uniform across different groups. Trans and queer voices, for example, remain relatively invisible and intersex voices are just now emerging. Testimonial forms and content vary according to the philosophies of the people or groups that produce them. For example, GRIS Montréal volunteers give testimonials to students during awareness workshops. Training is provided in advance of the workshops to help volunteers prepare responses to the questions that students are likely to ask. For PolitiQ, testimonials are mainly used to support political action. Testimonials can be given in a very personalized way such that when questions are asked, they are answered in the first person. However, some people may prefer to give a more detached or theoretical type of testimonial if the goal is to raise awareness about social injustice.
Voices of inclusion
The use of testimonials as strategy for social and cultural intervention raises a number of issues with regards to social inclusion and exclusion. Who usually ends up getting to talk (and who does not)? Who do we mean when we say “we” or “I”? Who tends to get a receptive ear from society? How can sexual and gender diversity be illustrated and explained in a way that does not reinforce prejudice?
Testimonial practices have a strong tendency to conform to predominant social norms in order to be easily understood. Unfortunately, preconceived ideas about who might be the “right” and “wrong” people to give testimonials can create problematic divisions. This can result in people not participating in testimonial activities because their styles or messages do not fit within standardized formats. If there are people who are excluded and do not give testimonials, it is possible that we will be unable to shed light on their realities or reduce prejudice towards them. Exploring these complex issues is at the heart of the Testimonial Cultures project’s ongoing work.