Switchboard LGBT+: What It Means to Me by Five People

As the UK’s oldest LGBT+ telephone helpline celebrates its 45th anniversary, five people – from callers to listening volunteers – reflect on the work of this life-changing service

This article is part of a series on AnotherManmag.com that coincides with LGBT History Month, shining a light on different facets of queer culture. Head here for more.

Founded on 4 March 1974, Switchboard LGBT+ Helpline is the oldest LGBT+ telephone helpline in the UK. Originally founded in a small room above a bookshop near King’s Cross station as London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard, for 45 years the helpline has provided a safe space for LGBT+ people to discuss topics including sexuality, gender identity, sexual health and emotional wellbeing. 

During this time, Switchboard has been at the forefront of supporting LGBT+ people. In the aftermath of the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in 1967, it was a vital source of information and support for the UK’s gay community as it faced a hostile press and a police campaign that ruthlessly targeted queer spaces. In the 1980s, Switchboard was the leading source of information on HIV/Aids, holding the UK’s first conference on the disease without receiving any government funding. It also helped people to navigate Section 28 – the infamous law that prevented local authorities from promoting or publicising homosexuality. The following decade, Switchboard supported the LGBT+ community in the aftermath of the Admiral Duncan nail bombing in 1999. Its volunteers answered hundreds of calls from concerned friends and relatives, but also helped many people deal with the after-effects of the attack. More recently, Switchboard has been there to support and inform people after the Orlando shooting in Florida and as reports of a violent and coordinated gay “purge” in the Russian province of Chechnya continue to emerge. While trans people face elevated levels of discrimination and are vilified in certain quarters of the media, Switchboard continues to offer calm words as LGBT+ identities develop and adapt.

LGBT+ rights pioneer Lisa Power, who co-founded Stonewall and previously volunteered with Switchboard, once said: “The milestones of the LGBT+ communities can be traced in the calls Switchboard has taken.” This message rings true today, with the LGBT+ community experiencing the effects of cuts against mental and sexual health services. Statistics also indicate a rise in the number of LGBT+ people with mental health issues and homophobic and transphobic hate crimes.

Behind these troubling statistics, there are real people who are struggling and, as a result, Switchboard takes over 30,000 calls each year. Nonetheless, for 45 years this March, there have been an army of volunteers who turn up every day to help people talk through their worries. As Switchboard turns 45, five people who’ve been on either side of the phone tell us about the 11-digit number that has changed so many lives.

Natasha Walker, 33, Co-Chair

“When I was growing up I felt very isolated, so when I got to university I volunteered for Bristol Switchboard. Just knowing that someone else has experienced some version of what you are feeling – not quite relating to the shows on TV, to your peers and family, but not quite understanding what that is or why – can be a big help. When I moved to London after university, I really wanted to continue doing something to help those questioning their sexuality and gender identity. I joined Switchboard at the end of 2012 as a listening volunteer. Two years later, I became a trustee and last September when I was elected co-chair.

“I often get asked if Switchboard is still relevant and if a helpline is still needed. Each time, my answer is the same: yes”

For me, the hardest thing about taking calls was not knowing what happens when you’d finish a conversation with a caller. I have spoken to people at all different points in their lives and you never know what happens next. When I was a new volunteer back in 2012, I spoke to a trans person who was really struggling. Not knowing what happened is really difficult, but I hope that our conversation helped them.

I often get asked if Switchboard is still relevant and if a helpline is still needed. Each time, my answer is the same: yes. Switchboard has been at the forefront of supporting our communities in facing the issues of the day throughout our long history. A legendary story within Switchboard is that of a man who walked up to our stall at Pride in London. He stopped and said to a volunteer: ‘Thank you, you saved my life,’ before walking away. I think that says it all really.”

Mark Rounding, 52, Former Caller

“I was 12 years old when I first called Switchboard. Rural east Yorkshire in the late 70s wasn’t exactly the place to stumble across any information regarding being gay or of support lines, so I’m not sure how I became aware of the number.

I remember that I partially dialled the number several times before finally being brave enough to dial it all, let it ring and then hear someone answer, before quickly hanging up and fleeing the house like it was a crime scene. My most vivid memory was being in the street outside, wondering what I had done and if I would be found out.

“Often all we need is to hear a voice that just in speaking says you are not alone”

I don’t think I phoned again until my mid-teens when I used it to find out ‘local’ information, like what was available in my area. Thanks to Switchboard I remember being just happy to know that there was something available near me, even if I’d have to travel on several modes of public transport to get there.

Decades later, the world may be different, but the challenges of being LGBT+ are still there. Apps or websites can never replace is the human reassuring voice, a person that can talk through your own situation and particularly circumstances and listen. Often all we need is to hear a voice that just in speaking says you are not alone.

LGBT Switchboard’s 45th birthday is an opportunity to say thank you, just for being there and knowing you existed made a world of difference to me and becoming secure in my identity as a gay man. I wish it well as it continues to help people be true to who they are, and assist with the confusion and conflicts that so often accompany the journey to being the real you.”

Richard Desmond, 54, Listening Volunteer and Former Caller 

“I called Switchboard when I was 14. I first joined as a volunteer in 1982, then again from 1993 until now. The biggest thing I’ve learned through volunteering is how to listen. I do four hours a week on the phones and I am a key volunteer for our email service. I have been an out person living with HIV since 1993, so HIV comes up a lot in my calls. Switchboard, like gay Londoners, has lived through an evolution in the epidemic, from the panicked early days through the depths of grief through to now.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned through volunteering is how to listen”

The subject of calls can vary greatly. I remember a particularly lovely call, where a couple wanted to get married, but thought weddings had to be big. I suggested to them that two witnesses and a decent lunch was fine and fun. I’ve been at Switchboard for a long time, but it survives because new people join regularly and their enthusiasm drives the charity.”

Emily Hatcher, 29, Listening Volunteer and Former Caller

“Since 2017, I have been one of many volunteers that answer the phones at Switchboard. I called Switchboard about a year before I joined. I’m lucky to have a fantastic network of friends around me, but sometimes it’s easier to call someone completely anonymously. I think a lot of our callers feel the same way. We receive calls, emails and instant messages everyday from people who need to talk and we are one of the few people they can turn to for a non-judgmental listening ear. This is a need that is apparent from so many people in so many situations and circumstance.

“We receive calls, emails and instant messages everyday from people who need to talk and we are one of the few people they can turn to for a non-judgmental listening ear”

A lot of the time people call us because they have a problem they are trying to figure out, so not every call ends with a warm glow. Calling us is usually the first step in finding a solution but, a couple of times I have taken calls from people who have called back to update us on how something went, which is really heart-warming. To hear someone recount how well coming out to their friends and family went, after they were so nervous, has made my week more than once.”

Neal McCullough, 34, Trustee and Listening Volunteer 

“People need to talk. Whether this because they are lonely, don’t know where their nearest gay bar is, or don’t know what pronouns to use, thus the ability to chat to someone who is LGBT+ is incredibly important.

I arrived at Switchboard as a volunteer in 2017 and became a Trustee in 2018. I’d worked on LGBT+ networks on a corporate level, but I felt these were frustratingly separate from the actual community. Volunteering for Switchboard allowed me to reconnect with the community through providing support to others.

“As long as people want to call us, Switchboard will keep listening”

Taking Switchboard to Pride in my hometown of Belfast was probably one of my proudest moments. Being able to go back and directly engage with people in Northern Ireland was fantastic. It was even better to get an increase in the number of calls from Northern Ireland in the weeks after, making the event a success.

Switchboard has taught me humility. It is an absolute privilege to be able to listen to people who open up to you and discuss things they don’t feel they can tell anyone else. Society is changing and the LGBT+ community is changing too, but Switchboard continues evolve to meet these changes. As long as people want to call us, Switchboard will keep listening.”