COLUMN: Strathclyde Lesbian and Gay Switchboard - the end of an era
By The Gay UK, Apr 24 2013 10:34AM
Scotland’s only gay switchboard hang up their phones for the last time
by Ian Hughes | 24th April 2013
After 35 years of being a valuable source of contact for the gay community, Strathclyde Gay and Lesbian Switchboard has had to close down due to lack of funding. It truly is the end of a great institution, as they were the only gay switchboard existing in Scotland. In today‘s high-tech society, where technology is at the forefront of our lives and we can get information at the click of a mouse, it’s easy to take something as simple as person to person communication for granted and to forget how important it can be. SGLS have always put the message across that when it comes to down to it, there’s nothing to take the place of one-to-one communication and to have someone there to listen to what you have to say.
Basing itself in Glasgow, Strathclyde Gay and Lesbian Switchboard has been going strong since 1977. In the late seventies and throughout the eighties activity was at its height as volunteers handled an enormous volume of calls as HIV and AIDS arrived on the scene. Campaigns such as Keep the Clause (Section 28) and some of the tabloid press homophobia meant that the Switchboard was very busy as it helped give the gay community somewhere they could talk about their fears and concerns.
The Switchboard offered a unique service and has always been there providing a voice for anyone out there who just wants to talk. Whether it was someone feeling isolated, lonely, confused, in need of advice about sexual and emotional health, or just wanting to know where to go on the scene, SGLS has been there to listen and help people or point them in the right direction, and any subject was always up for discussion. Staffed entirely by volunteers, all funding they received went towards accommodation rentals, the telephones and internet access.
One of the many important aspects of the Switchboard was that all volunteers were gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, so a caller could always be sure that they could identify with whatever they were calling about.
Although great strides have been made in the laws regarding LGBT people, there are still stark reminders that things haven’t progressed as much as we would wish. With homophobia, bullying and discrimination still highly prevalent in today’s society, it’s clear why a service such as SGLS is needed. This makes it a sad day indeed that, on 31st December 2012, SGLS were forced to hang up their telephones for the final time, leaving Scotland without such a valuable and relevant resource.
I was lucky enough to go along and talk to some of the volunteers and find out what the Switchboard has meant to them. All the volunteers have come from a wide range of backgrounds, occupations and perspectives on life. One of the volunteers I spoke to has been a volunteer for 25 years and was there when it was based above a Chinese restaurant in Union Street, before moving to Sauchiehall Street, Park Circus and then to its current location. “In the early days it was a vital part of the gay community,” he told me, “as there was no other way of getting information about the gay scene, especially as homosexuality was still illegal in Scotland when Switchboard began. Over the years we’ve helped a lot of people come to terms with their sexuality and find out where to go to meet other gay people.”
Dee joined SGLS 15 months ago, having previously worked with LGBT Youth. “I missed volunteering in my life and I was really interested in the service Switchboard provides. It has a place within the LGBT community and in particular gives people a safe space to talk without fear of judgment or reprisal.” This is something that Switchboard has always prided itself on - the fact that none of the volunteers judge anyone who calls and there is no limit to how long they want to talk for. “I get a sense of satisfaction from it,” Dee continues, “and I’ve met some really good people through Switchboard.”
Claudia has been with Switchboard for 2 years and joined because she wanted to do something worthwhile for the LGBT community. “Even though it‘s 2012 there are still plenty of problems out there like stigma and bullying,” she explains, “and I’d imagine that coming from smaller communities of which we have a lot of in Scotland, that it must be really difficult whether you’re in the younger age bracket or older.”
David works as a social worker and has been a volunteer for 8 years. “It’s been good helping people with issues like coming out,” he tells me. “There’s very few opportunities to phone anywhere like Switchboard, without having to press 1 or press 2 and be put on hold. You know you’re going to get a LGBT person to speak to who understands the issues.”
One thing the volunteers were agreed on was that they wanted to give something back to the gay community. Alf, who has been a volunteer for 4 years, found that as he found himself feeling more comfortable within himself and with his own sexuality, he felt ready to move on and do something in terms of volunteering. “I think it’s very important because as an organisation, it’s quite unique.“ He continues, “I see Switchboard as being broad in its intent, in the sense that it’s one of the only places where people can phone us and get support if they need it, but also they can get guidance to other services within the community, whether it’s sexual health, mental health, or even what’s going on in the scene. It’s almost like a one-stop shop for the LGBT community where people can get directions to other places, but also get support if they need it.”
Another positive aspect of working for Switchboard has been that all the volunteers have all made many new friends through volunteering for Switchboard, something that Paul, a volunteer for 1 ½ years has found. “I wanted to get involved in the gay community that I socialise in and also to get new friends and new goals,” he told me. “I think Switchboard is a lifeline to the community, for people who want to speak out about their personal feelings and have someone there to talk to when they can’t talk to other people - even their best friends or family. They know it’s confidential and that there’s no comeback. No one is going to question them and they can just speak outright.”
David Thomas is the coordinator for Switchboard and joined in 2001. It was a tragic circumstance that got him involved. “A young girl had thrown herself under a train at my local train station,” he explained. “When I enquired as to what had happened, I got the full story - that she’d been a goth at school and was picked on and then she’d come out as a lesbian, which was the final straw for everyone and they all rejected her. She felt the only solution was to throw herself under a train. When I saw the Switchboard advert, I wanted to do something positive to try and avoid that kind of thing happening again.“ It is stories such as this one that makes the closure of Strathclyde Gay and Lesbian Switchboard particularly sad. All types of calls have been taken over the thirty years of Switchboard’s life - from all over Britain and even abroad. “There have been calls from Singapore, Norway, Sweden, and closer to home Liverpool,” David tells me. “I think Switchboard makes a huge difference to the people who phone us.”
SGLS have delivered a number of services throughout the years including a weekly dedicated line for lesbians and bisexual women, as well as the Crosslynx telephone support line for transgender people, friends and family. Other services include a hate crime third party reporting line and Icebreakers - a regular supported social event. Gary volunteered 1 ½ years ago says that he got a great deal of satisfaction out of it. “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time at Switchboard and feel that I’ve got a sense of belonging and also that I‘ve helped give something back to the gay community. Switchboard was there for me when I needed them and I feel that there will always be a need for people to hear a reassuring voice on the other end of the phone. I don’t feel that a service like that will ever be irrelevant and I feel very sad that Switchboard has had to close, as there is still a continuing need for this type of service to operate in the future.”
This originally started out as an article to help promote Strathclyde Gay and Lesbian Switchboard, but lack of funding has meant that proper promotion of the service could not be maintained and as 2012 comes to an end, so, alas, does this worthwhile and much needed service which has helped the LGBT community for the last 30 years. They truly were the “friendly ear” for the LGBT community, and I’m sure there’s a lot of people out there who, like Gary, have phoned them at one time or another and benefited from the experience. So as we progress into 2013, raise your glasses and toast Strathclyde Gay and Lesbian Switchboard for all the wonderful work they’ve done for the past 35 years. It’s just a shame that what should have been a great anniversary for them has instead forced them to bring their service to an abrupt end. Thanks SGLS for all you’ve done for us.
Strathclyde Gay and Lesbian Switchboard 1977-2012 - It’s been good to talk.
I would very much like to thank all the volunteers who kindly gave up their time to let me come in and talk to them.
If you need to call a helpline or switchboard please call the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard on: 0300 330 0630