In the age of the internet, picking up the phone for information or help might seem somewhat outmoded. Support networks for gay, lesbian and transgendered people are now infinitely more developed and accessible than they were ten, twenty or thirty years ago. And while the internet has helped to inform people of what’s available much more widely, one London organisation has been firmly planted in that web of support since 1974, barely seven years after homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK. It may offer an instant messaging service these days, but the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard is proof that a sympathetic, listening ear can never be completely replaced by web technology.
The charity started life above a North London shop, providing advice and support for a fledgling and newly liberated gay and lesbian population. Although it has long since moved on from its primitive beginnings, it remains at the heart of the capital’s gay community. The telephone helpline is at the core of this, as are online methods through instant messaging and email support, while information on sexual health is also readily available. In addition, Switchboard runs the Turing Network database, named after Enigma codebreaker Alan Turing (himself gay), providing a public access search facility that enables anyone to look for support or services aimed at the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) community.[pullquote_right]Were it not for a dedicated team of over 150 volunteers, Switchboard would not exist at all[/pullquote_right]None of this happened by accident, and were it not for a dedicated team of over 150 volunteers, Switchboard would not exist at all. And it’s the stories of some of those volunteers that make the charity what it is.
Simon, 35, is a TV producer by day but for just over a year he’s been a volunteer listener, having undertaken the core training that all volunteers go through before becoming fully ‘ratified’.
‘I first phoned Switchboard myself about 20 years ago – I’d seen the number on the back of a Jimmy Somerville record, and made contact through the gay youth group near where I lived. So I knew how valuable it was.
‘I got involved because it was something I had always wanted to do but didn’t have the time,’ he says. A well-publicised book, The Velvet Rage, which talks about the different stages of being gay and caused a lot of attention when it was published, had also partly inspired Simon to want to help other LGBT people deal with difficult stages in their lives.
So what might a typical call to the Switchboard be about?
‘The shifts I usually do tend to be over the weekend – so you could say they’re “day after the night before” types of calls,’ explains Simon. ‘People might call because they are unhappy or unfulfilled in their lives. A guy might call because he wants to find out where to get hold of poppers [commonly marketed as room deodorizer] – but underneath it all you find out there’s another story. In fact, he wants to get drunk and out of his mind because he’s unhappy with his boyfriend.’
And that’s where the Switchboard’s non-judgemental, impartial approach is of most value. People call the helpline because they’re frightened, confused or isolated. The same support is also there for the friends and family of lesbian and gay people, and although it’s not Switchboard’s role to provide long-term support, it can be that vital signpost to an organisation or charity which can be of more help.
Laura, 32, works in insurance in the City of London by day. ‘I’ve had people trying to make sense of their sexuality; dealing with discrimination, homophobia or bullying at school, work or within their families; as well as calling for information on sex, sexual health or where to find a GUM clinic.’
‘We don’t counsel anyone, but we are the filter to charities like Stonewall and Terrence Higgins Trust, which provide advice on a whole range of issues,’ says Nathaniel, 27, one of Switchboard’s support volunteers.[pullquote_left]‘Identification is the unique selling point,’ says Simon. ‘Governments have failed gay people, and even the NHS, through no fault of its own, doesn’t know what it’s like to be gay.’[/pullquote_left]‘We support our callers by letting them articulate their thoughts and feelings; and empower them by providing information from which they can make informed decisions about their lives,’ adds Laura.
The role of information provider is very important for Switchboard. Through its Turing database it can provide a wealth of information for those looking for local services or gay-friendly places to socialise and meet others. And it covers the whole of the UK, and not just London.
So what is it that makes the Switchboard so special?
‘Identification is the unique selling point,’ says Simon. ‘Governments have failed gay people, and even the NHS, through no fault of its own, doesn’t “know” what it’s like to be gay.
‘It means that Switchboard is not only an important service, but an absolutely crucial way of giving people identification.’ Simon illustrates that with an example of the sort of caller who might find Switchboard’s reassurance helpful: ‘If you are a married man with kids you might not have any other reference points.’
‘As a gay community we don’t always talk to each other about what’s going on, but Switchboard is an opportunity for us to check in with people to make sure they’re OK.’
Away from the phones, there’s a crucial core of volunteers who help make sure that the charity’s core services can run– and with only one paid member of staff, there are very important roles to be filled.
‘It’s like a big family,’ says Nathaniel, who by day works in the cosmetics industry, on co-ordinating Switchboard’s marketing and fundraising functions. Bucket rattles, sponsored events and getting its message out both online and offline are crucial to raising public awareness. What’s more, Switchboard’s regular presence at Pride as well as other events help it to raise vital cash to run its services. Although the charity receives funding from the Pan-London HIV Prevention Partnership (PLHPP), it has to make up for any shortfall in fundraising by its volunteers .[pullquote_right]A Switchboard-sized gap in the gay community would be clearly noticed.[/pullquote_right]Like Simon, Nathaniel started volunteering for Switchboard because he too wanted to put something meaningful back into the community, having first phoned Switchboard when he was 14. The positive experiences of his own coming out encouraged him to volunteer for the charity some years later.
‘As much as my family were open and supportive, it felt like I had a friend in Switchboard,’ recalls Nathaniel.
A Switchboard-sized gap in the gay community would be clearly noticed. ‘Switchboard is run by the LGBT community, for the LGBT community – we use our knowledge and understanding of issues affecting the community to help,’ says Laura. ‘We support our callers by letting them articulate their thoughts and feelings; we empower them by providing information from which they can make informed decisions about their lives.’
‘Anyone in the LGBT community can get involved,’ says Nathaniel, ‘and there’s never anything we wouldn’t get involved in.’
You can call London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard between 10am and 11pm every day of the week, 365 days a year on 0300 330 0630. To find out more about what they do, visit their website, which also includes details on how to become a volunteer.