It’s LGBT History Month! That means taking the time to recognise the building blocks that have paved the way for the fantastic support that we see today from charities working in support of LGBTQ communities – charities like Switchboard. Ahead is a beautiful piece written by Natasha Walker, Co-Chair at Switchboard LGBT+, on how the birth of the charity in the mid 1970s laid the foundation for the strong and supportive charity that we still see today.

Lisa Power, a founder of Stonewall and ex-volunteer once said “The milestones of the LGBTQ+ communities can be traced in the calls Switchboard has taken.” and I couldn’t agree more. Switchboard is one of the UK’s longest running, LGBTQ+, volunteer-led charities. We’re a national helpline, open to anyone who has questions or wants to talk about gender identity, sexuality, mental and sexual health. 

Switchboard began 46 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.

When Switchboard started it was, as it still is today, a first point of call for many needing support, but it was also a source of vital information for many callers giving the inside knowledge on the ‘scene’ and operating a much needed accommodation service for those who were in need of a home.

One of the most prominent types of calls we received throughout the 70s were in reference to the countless police raids during this period. 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).

Many people will remember the campaign by the Government in 1987 – AIDS Don’t Die of Ignorance. The leaflet the government issued was sent to every household in the country and our number was included. Needless to say Switchboard was overwhelmed with calls. 

In addition to this, our volunteers spent a lot of time helping people navigate Section 28 (a law that said local authorities could not “intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”).  

In the 1990s our support for the LGBTQ+ communities was never more evident than throughout the aftermath of the Admiral Duncan bombing in 1999. Our volunteers not only answered hundreds of calls from concerned friends and relatives, but also helped many people deal with the after-effects of the attack in the following months.  

Over the past 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 dating from 1974 to 2003. These are the hand-written records of the calls taken by our volunteers and just such an incredible resource, a living breathing diary, that tells the story of queer history in Britain. Last year I and a couple of other producers released The Log Books podcast in partnership with Switchboard, which uses the entries in the log books and interviews with over 40 contributors to tell Britain’s queer history. This first season of The Log Books focuses on the period from 1974 to 1982, with later seasons (hopefully) focusing on later time periods. 

In the time that I’ve spent reading the log books, the most pertinent thing that has stood out to me whilst looking through them, is the consistent themes of the support calls – despite the changes in legislation, the changes in societal and cultural attitudes, the changes within the LGBTQIA+ communities, the phone calls for support have remained constant. (QUOTE THIS)

I found entries from 1975, 1988 and 2003. Each entry was from a person questioning their identity, with themes of shame, confusion and loneliness. Themes which remain constant in the calls we take today.

Switchboard – the LGBT+ Helpline, operates a telephone line, instant messaging and email service from 10am to 10pm, 365 days a year:

  • Helpline: 0330 330 0630
  • Email: chris@switchboard.lgbt
  • Website: www.switchboard.lgbt

For more on Switchboard, view their profile here.

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