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Working with rainbow communities: Questions of safety, allyship, and ethics

15 Feb 2024

By Alejandra Gonzalez Campanella

Last year, the Auckland branch had the privilege of listening to representatives from Rainbow Path – an Aotearoa-based organisation supporting LGBTQIA+ refugees and asylum seekers ( – as they discussed issues faced by their members and the relevance of language support to mitigate challenges. Unfortunately, gaps in knowledge, misunderstanding and prejudice remain part and parcel of service access for many of our clients. Such is the case for LGBTQIA+ and rainbow communities, where language access compounds issues of trust, safety, and even social justice.

The 2023 AUSIT conference in Sydney showed some encouraging signs of a desire to step up to the challenge by creating spaces to reflect on the role of translation and interpreting in mediating communication for communities with intersecting vulnerabilities. Admittedly, those two events felt somewhat slim given the ambitious scale of the conference with over 100 presentations (for a review of the conference as a whole, read my other article on Word for Word). Some organisational glitches, like not including the attendees’ pronouns on their IDs, can also be seen to contradict the calls from experts. Nevertheless, both events offered collegial discussion, valuable resources, and much food for thought.

Pre-Conference Workshop: 'Lost In Translation: LGBTIQ+ Inclusion and Safety Training for Translators and Interpreters'

The two-hour workshop was delivered by Candela Malizia, a translator and interpreter with vast expertise in gender and equity issues as well as a human rights advocate. With several in-person and online workshops under her belt, Candela was able to turn this challenging topic into an enjoyable debate where participants from all backgrounds could learn from and add to the conversation. Captivating material with powerful quotes, valuable resources, and fun designs also contributed to an engaging presentation.

The workshop explored the role of language in the sex-gender matrix that feeds into a harmful narrative of stereotypes and inequalities faced by LGBTQIA+ communities. Candela acutely pointed out the gaps in scientific knowledge relating to sex and gender, given that white, male, western, and hetero-dominant perspectives have been the dominating voices in the field. This bias inevitably trickles down to language professionals through the messages to which we are exposed at home, in our communities, and even when we train to become translators and interpreters. Recognising the intrinsic power imbalances in the systems that surround us and how those imbalances can impact LGBTQIA+ people who communicate primarily in a language other than spoken English is the first step to improving support for the communities we serve.

The biggest – and most controversial – question raised in this workshop was whether interpreters and translators can operate as allies to LGBTQIA+ clients and what this allyship model would mean in practice. Needless to say, merely suggesting that language practitioners can be ‘allies’ can make any staunch follower of the Code of Ethics feel queasy. I will also admit that the first time someone raised this concept, all my training and professional instincts started sounding the alarm. Our very own Auckland branch president, Agustina Marianacci, quickly explained that allyship did not mean ignoring everything we hold dear in professional conduct but instead recognising power imbalances and collaboratively seeking to create agency (you can read more about this in her own words here). The workshop opened up valuable discussions between scholars, sign language interpreters, spoken language interpreters, and translators about the most appropriate ways to interpret the Code of Ethics to ensure LGBTQIA+ clients are supported and empowered and whether different interpretations of ethical tenets are possible at all.

Panel discussion: '(Not) Lost in Translation: Delivering an Inclusive Service for LGBTQIA+ Clients'

The pre-conference workshop planted a seed of critical reflection that continued with a panel discussion on the first day of the conference. This time, Candela Malizia shared the floor with other experts and academics, namely Dr Erika Gonzalez from RMIT, Budi Sudarto from Ananda Training and Consultancy, Gianna Parma from True Relationships and Reproductive Health, and Dr Horas Wong from the University of Sydney.

The first question for the panel was a seamless continuation of the lengthy and often heated debate of the previous day as it related to a seeming contradiction between providing a safe service to LGBTQIA+ communities and the Code of Ethics. Answers from the panel quickly referred to the need to reflect on our practice to ensure that human rights and people’s right to be heard come first. This reflection may require challenging the status quo in relation to notions of professionalism and ethics. While such discussions often receive a lot of pushback, they are nonetheless essential to moving forward as a community of practice.

Something that resonated with me from this session was the danger of falling into the ‘white saviour’ complex. The panellists discussed how our internal biases and desire to correct power imbalances can make us prone to taking over control of communications. This concept has already appeared in research and is paramount to trauma-informed interpreting (PCAR, 2018). This is where interpreter/translator ‘allies’ must tread carefully to avoid disempowerment. Critical reflection is vital to navigating the nuances of interpreting the Code of Ethics to allow more leniency as allies yet remain focused on empowerment and restoring agency to the individuals.

Research exposing unsafe and potentially re-traumatising translation and interpreting support for LGBTQIA+ communities (e.g. Schmidt, 2023) stresses the relevance of training opportunities like this workshop. It would be nothing short of naïve to think we can master this topic and become safe practitioners in a few hours. Still, more opportunities for this kind of professional development, accompanied by ongoing critical reflection, are essential in our journey to safe and inclusive services.

The AUSIT conference allowed practitioners to reflect on the need to continually revisit our assumptions, question our practice, and update our professional toolkit. One part of this effort relates to having conversations that may take us out of our comfort zone. The other part is ensuring that we stay on top of terminology and guidelines on best practices. The workshop and panel discussion were great opportunities to brush up on the latest resources for improving our work with LGBTQIA+ communities.

LGBTQIA+ and Rainbow resources for translators and interpreters

- LGBTQIA+ Multilingual Glossary by RMIT, in collaboration with AUSIT, AGMC, and the City of Melbourne

The team behind this project developed a one-stop shop for LGBTQIA+ terminology, including bespoke resources and links to useful third-party material in English and LOTE.

- Online learning modules by True Relationships & Reproductive Health

This health provider has developed self-paced online courses for translators and interpreters focused on migrant and refugee reproductive sexual health. All the resources are free and provide a valuable starting point for people wanting to become more acquainted with terminology and safe practice. They also have a 20-30 minute module on LGBTQIA+ safety.

- Online training by Forcibly Displaced People Network

FDPN is one of the first organisations that offered support to LGBTQIA+ people from refugee backgrounds. Their free online module has valuable information about the history of rainbow people across different cultures and the context behind the persecution of LGBTQIA+ people. In addition to providing a nuanced background for supporting clients in this intersection, it is a good resource for exploring terminology.

- Downloadable glossary by InsideOut

This Aotearoa-based organisation focusing on education, consultation, and support for rainbow and takatāpui communities has developed a comprehensive glossary handout with sex, gender, and sexuality terminology.

- Resources by ACON

This New South Wales health provider has compiled a list of multicultural resources, including research, guidelines, and other relevant services.

They also have an interactive glossary with gender, sexuality, and societal issues terminology.

The experts at the AUSIT pre-conference event and panel discussion agreed that unsafe services for members of LGBTQIA+ and rainbow communities can lead to discrimination, adverse health outcomes, violations of human rights, and re-traumatisation. As individual practitioners, we can choose to work on becoming safer professionals in our work with vulnerable clients. As a collective, we need to engage in meaningful and, yes, sometimes uncomfortable kōrero to pave a brighter future for our colleagues and communities.


With thanks to NZSTI for funding through the NZSTI Conference Subsidy scheme.


Baker-Shenk, Charlotte. (1991). The interpreter: Machine, advocate, or ally. In Expanding horizons: Proceedings of the 1991 RID Convention (pp. 120-140).

Marianacci, Agustina. (2018). My Journey as an Interpreter: Interpreting as an Ally.

Schmidt, Elizabeth. (2023). Making Space: Policy and Practice to Support LGBTQIA+ Refugees and Asylum Seekers.

Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (PCAR). (2018). Trauma-informed interpreting.


Photo credit: Carlos de Toro @carlosdetoro on Unsplash


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