Julian Hows - London Switchboard  

Interview with Julian Hows of the London Switchboard
(Not published in print.)

C. M-S: Can you tell us something about the origins of switchboard?

Julian: Switchboard started in 1974. The reason was that a gay newspaper called "Gay News" had been started. It developed out of the collapse of the old Gay Liberation Front (GLF) in this country. GLF had had meetings of up to 500 people - but then splintered into groups around London and the country.  When it started to collapse amid in-fighting some people from the media group of the GLF decided to start a newspaper. Its first headline was "Straight Society gets egg on its face". It started off in a small office in Paddington and they got literally 100's of calls a week from people asking "Where can I go out?", or "I think I might be gay"... or "I'm 17 and have just moved to London..." or perhaps "I'm 45 and married, but,...“

So a group of us who were basically old G L F hacks got together … and rented a room from a pacifist organisation called "Peace News" - who had originally rented GLF its 1st office. They gave us a room for almost nothing and installed a telephone for us. We started with a shoebox with little "bits" in - and waited for the first call - fighting over who should answer it.

"Sister" Julian Hows at the ILGA-Europa Conference, Berlin 1991

After 4 years, we went on to a 24-hour service and ended up becoming a formal organisation - although we didn't achieve charitable status - which in this country brings certain benefits in terms of cash and fund-raising etc - until 1984. We were one of the first gay organisations to do so.

From 10 people in a room which was given to us for next to nothing in order to promote the principles of gay and lesbian liberation, we have moved on to become - 17 years later 120 people - in the same building but with more rooms at more rent, taking between 120,000 and 125 000 calls a year, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year - and we hope to move to a new building soon.

Some things haven't changed. We are still a purely voluntary organisation. We are still lesbians and gay men - that's what it's all about.

C. M-S: What do you spend your money on?

Julian: Roughly on rent, electricity, and telephone rental - those are the major items. Then there are things like photocopying, and 30,000 pounds a year running costs.

We also go out and "look for" money - for instance for a computer system. In addition, we've raised 200,000 pounds to buy a building and are now in the process of raising another 200,000 pounds to convert and equip the building for our volunteers so that we are not on top of one another. Here, there is no possibility of a meeting with more than 8 people - the rooms are not big enough.

We divide the work into 5 groups, and at present we have no room where all our main people can meet comfortably - and in order to run an organisation on a collective basis a lot of talking has to be done. Suggestions come, hopefully, from the bottom upwards. It's nice to sit down and be comfortable when you’re in a long session.

The first group is the training group - responsible for the induction of volunteers and on-going training. We give more training to our newcomers than some well-known groups, or social service departments.

The second group is the public relations group - which is our contact to the outside world. We are often asked to belong to other bodies, both national and international, and we have to be careful not to take on too much.

A third, and very important group is responsible for raising money. We've got a new building but now we need to develop it. At the moment, we are working in a shoe-box - and have been for a long time. We could use 250 volunteers - as far as the number of 'phone calls goes. At present at any time while one person is talking on the phone, 5 others are waiting or getting the engaged tone.

The fourth group is responsible for the collection of information and keeping it up-to-date. I mean the information which is used in the telephone room. That is a lot of work.

...and the fifth group is the "central services group" - which looks after the organisation of the cleaning, making sure the telephones are working and manned, that there is enough paper for the copying machine and so on. We try to fit in the hours that someone does on the telephone with their working time - which of course makes it complicated to work out. Each of these groups has a co-ordinator, which they elect themselves.

Our volunteers do the work for nothing. Everyone who joins signs a volunteers contract which says they agree to obey the rules although we have very few of them. We do, however, NOT meet callers, and are strict about that. Other switchboards outside London may decide to befriend callers bring them out, offer them face to face counselling under certain conditions. We decided early on against that because there are many organisations which can do it more effectively...

Every ratified volunteer is expected to do a minimum of 40 hours work a quarter to ensure that the organisation functions, either on the phones, or some other meaningful work, from making sure there are enough toilet rolls, to making sure that our information about a particular part of the country is accurate. In exchange we give them absolutely FREE as much tea or coffee as they can drink.

If they are unemployed we give them the cost of travel from home to the Switch­board, and the money for a sandwich while they are here. Sometimes we get grants from trusts and such organisations to make sure our volunteers avoid poverty - or even if someone is low-waged - we bend the rules slightly. If someone has the responsibility of caring for a child - we might pay something towards the cost of a babysitter or crèche. Considering volunteers do the work for nothing, it's not a lot really.

Julian: There are a lot of social groups, age groups, ethnic groups and geographically based groups that started up through the efforts of "switchboard" volunteers. When the National Aids Helpline was set up, we lost half our volunteers because - especially people who are unemployed could get 6 Pounds 50 an hour there whereas here they get nothing.

In the meantime - 2 years later - many have come back to us because they have a very hierarchical structure imposed on them by the very straight government.

We have a series of rules which although we don't go through them at an interview include - for instance - that abortion is a woman's right, that nobody who is fascist or neo-fascist can work for us, that people must understand the issues in intergenerational sex, and ought neither be legalistic nor say that it is 100% terrific. They must have an understanding of the issues of the "power of consent" and have thought about it. Neither condone nor condemn - it's a difficult one.

C. M-S: What was it like in the early days - the first call?

Julian: The calls haven't changed much. Most of them are still about people phoning up and looking for validation of themselves as a lesbian or gay man. Even when they are only phoning up to find out where they can go tonight, it might be because they are living in a bed-sitter in Croydon and have sex with others but haven't got a community together yet. They still phone us up to get validation that he/she is lesbian or gay. A lot of people require that validation.

C. M-S: Do you get many calls where people are threatening to take their life?

Julian: Because we are open 24 hours a day we get a lot of calls that are about the depths of despair and isolation, whether it because they are upset that they are lesbian or gay, or now in the late 80's and early 90's, because a close friend or lover has died of AIDS, or maybe the person themselves are suffering from some terrible disease. They are quite rare, and we do have a policy that the individual volunteer has to decide whether thy are going to be interventionist or not.

Other organisations, such as the Samaritans, has a totally interventionist approach. It will always intervene whether the person on the other end wants them to or not. We say it is up to the individuals volunteer whether they wish to intervene or not.

C. M-S: What does intervening involve?

Julian: - Trying to get the person to give you their telephone number, or address. In the final instance, it would involve contacting the police or emergency services and getting them to trace where the call is coming from. In certain circumstance that is possible even if the caller has given you no information at all. That's an interventionist approach. Such calls are, however, rare. There are many calls which  - because we're here no matter how isolated and depressed the person is, they can phone up and cry, and talk to us - which often stops the worst happening. They'll sooner pick up the phone than a knife!

C.M-S: You told me that you use every opportunity to talk about safer sex....

Julian: Yes. If someone phones up at 7 pm to find out whether a particular artist is appearing at a given venue, we'll give them the information and then ask, "Are you going out by yourself?"

Or when someone phones up who is thinking of having gay or lesbian sex for the first time we would give them a more detailed chat about what safe-sex is - so that it, we hope ceases to be a problem for them.

Then when people may be going to Poland, for instance, we tell them to take lots of condoms with them. Take more than you can possibly use with you  - you can give them away - and be saving lives. Since we are not a specifically AIDS-line we are in an almost unique position to be "pro-active" with advice since people are not worried before they call up - as they likely are with an AIDS-line.  We would even tell someone who is going to the US to take condoms with them because they might not find the corner drug store when they need it! We're very much aware that many people are going away to have a good time sexually with the lads, be in Bangkok or Budapest.

C.M-S: Do people have to have experience or do you give training?

Julian: Switchboard was set up as an organisation to inform, and advise, for referral and counselling. The counselling was forced on us to a certain extent. Our callers demanded it. We responded but are aware of our limitations. We offer advice and we don't meet callers. There is no set time when "A" or "Z" is going to be here on the telephones so callers might phone and get 2 different people on the phone one after the other. The counselling we do is different from where there is a face-to-face situation, or even when a call at the same time of the week will mean you can talk to the same person. Our "contract" is different.

What we look for in our volunteers is the ability to have empathy with callers, and to have some understanding of lesbian and gay lifestyles other than their own. After that during training, we practice various types of call and caller. Training takes about 20 hours before anyone gets near to a telephone.

C. M-S: What types of call do you get?

Julian: 70% of our calls are from the London area - geographically. 20% from the UK generally and the rest from elsewhere. We even had a 16 year old phoning from Lima (Peru) because he thinks he might be gay! Or the American who had just landed in Chicago and wanted to know a leather bar! Then, our 1 millionth call was a US tourist staying at a 200 pound-a-night London hotel who wanted to know how to get to the Coleherne Pub! We often get calls from people planning holidays. "We are going to Lower Ruritania. Is there a gay disco there?"

Other categories. About 80% men and 20% women - which is also roughly the balance of our staff of volunteers.

Many calls are of the type "Where can we go tonight?"... If they phone up to find the opening time of a gay bar - we also talk about safe sex.

A lot phone up about the commercial scene, and we mention what we regard as community-based initiatives. There is still very much the attitude OUT THERE that gay life is from 20 to 35, going out to smoke-filled rooms, with alcohol and loud music. They think that is what is being gay means. We try to disabuse them of that notion. Even though our primary aim is to satisfy callers, that is tempered with the fact that Switchboard grew out of the GLF. So its most principled aim is still to spread the ideas of lesbian and gay liberation - which means about being community, not necessarily just giving money to a not very "pink" economy. Many people need to have their horizons widened, to be given a challenge perhaps of learning that there's more to being gay than the way they have been funnelled into thinking about themselves.

There are a lot of unhappy people out there on the lesbian and gay scene who don't realise there are far more ways of socialising and learning to live than are superficially available to them.

C. M-S: Thank you for the interview.

Colin de la Motte-Sherman

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