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,
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
Do people have to have experience or do you give training?
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
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