Switchboard has been serving LGBTQ+ people for over 45 years having been first established after requests by the Gay Liberation Front and Gay News for a helpline to be set up. The telephone (and now texting) advice and support service is still as important today as it was then as Switchboard’s Co-Chair Natasha Walker told us.
Can you tell us about the history of Switchboard?
Switchboard began 45 years ago on 4th March 1974 in the basement of Housman’s bookshop on Caledonian Road, in response to a call to organise a ‘helpline’ by the Gay Liberation Front and Gay News, who were receiving an ever increasing number of calls to their offices. After the 1967 partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality Switchboard provided a much needed service to help signpost people to the newly developing “gay scene”. Just over a year later due to increasing demand, in May 1975 Switchboard began to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Switchboard operated a much needed accommodation service, helping those in crisis who had lost their home and also received information about LGBTQ+ meetings and in turn informed callers.
One of the most prominent types of calls we received throughout the 70s were in reference to the countless police raids during this period. Numerous calls from people informing Switchboard of raids that had happened but our volunteers also received calls tipping us off about impending attacks.
Do you still get people wanting help coming out?
Yes we do; over the last couple of years I’ve spent time working on and cataloguing Switchboard’s Archive which is now held at Bishopsgate Institute, which includes our log books from 1974 to the early 90s. These are the hand-written records of the calls taken by our volunteers. Above all the most pertinent thing that has stood out to me whilst looking through the log books, is the consistent themes of the support calls – despite the changes in legislation, the changes in societal and cultural attitudes, the changes within the LGBTQ+ communities… the phone calls for support have remained constant.
I found an entry from 1975, 1988 and 2003. Each from a person questioning their identity, with themes of shame, confusion and loneliness. Themes which remain constant in the calls we take today. 45 years after that very first log book, Switchboard is still here – providing calm words when needed most.
How was Switchboard at the forefront of the battle against HIV and AIDS?
In the 80s and 90s Switchboard was the leading source of information on HIV and AIDS, installing a 5th phone line to deal with the upsurge of calls. As the effect on our communities became apparent, Switchboard’s volunteers collated and maintained a detailed manual of the latest and most up-to-date information available. We not only shared this with the many frightened callers to our helpline, but also with the general public, as our volunteers staffed the BBC helplines to take calls after programmes about HIV and AIDS. Organising a public meeting in 1983, our volunteers went on to set up and work for some of the UK’s leading HIV charities, such as the National AIDS Manual (NAM). Throughout these years the log books contain countless entries from frightened, confused, angry and heartbroken people… for themselves, their lovers, their friends and families, but also for the community. But I think it’s really important to note that throughout this time Switchboard’s volunteers were not only supporting the callers but also each other.
You are using lots of new ways to communicate these days?
Absolutely; in 2011 Switchboard launched its instant message and email service. We know that not everyone finds the telephone the easiest way to communicate and as technology advances so should our helpline.
How do you help LGBT+ people facing discrimination and harassment?
At Switchboard the important thing for us is ensuring that people know we’re here, that they know our number, know that they have someone to turn to – a safe space to talk and feel supported. Switchboard is a responsive resource for people in need throughout the LGBTQ+ communities and beyond.
I am pleased to say that Switchboard are launching a campaign at Pride in London which will focus on promoting Switchboard as a SAFE SPACE… specifically targeting those areas in the UK with the highest rates of LGBT+ hate crimes.
Can you tell us more about the calls you get?
More often than not one call will cover a wide variety of things that person needs to talk about, some examples are: coming out, relationships and family issues, gender identity and trans issues, sexuality, hate crimes, isolation & loneliness, faith & sexuality, and safe sex.
No matter what the reason is for contacting us, our volunteers are here to listen.
Can you tell us about your funding and how people can support you?
Switchboard is funded on the generosity of our friends and supporters who help us to cover our running costs, without which we wouldn’t be able to keep providing the support we do. On average it costs £4 to answer a call and we answer around 15,000 calls a year.
There are many ways in which someone can support Switchboard via one of the following methods: Donate via text SAFESPACE £5/£10/£20 to 70085, becoming a friend of Switchboard, fundraising for us, leaving a legacy or simply by spreading the word about Switchboard!
If a Boyz reader was interested in joining Switchboard, what are the most important qualities you seek in your volunteers?
It is Switchboard’s policy that all volunteers self-identity as part of the LGBTQ+ communities, but there really isn’t a typical volunteer. We want volunteers from all walks of life and all backgrounds, but ultimately we are looking for people who are non-judgemental and empathetic. They also have to be adaptable. A call from a 15-year-old just coming out might be immediately followed by a call from a 60-year-old trans person looking for a local bar, followed by a married woman who has just had her first lesbian experience and is wondering whether that makes her gay. That variety is part of what makes volunteering for Switchboard so rewarding. You will be joining a community of 200 volunteers and have the opportunity to give back and support a whole range of LGBTQ+ people and as well as those in their lives. You will get comprehensive training before starting on the phones, as well as ongoing support.