THE LOG BOOKS
Season 1 Episode 7 “It’s great to be gay!”
Date: 16.12. 2019
Presenters: Tash Walker, Adam Smith
Producers: Shivani Dave, Tash Walker, Adam Smith
Music: Tom Foskett-Barnes
Artwork: Natalie Doto
AS: This episode contains stories about racism including slurs and suicide.
[telephone dial tone, music]
April 1st 1979. 1:04 am.
Got a silent caller to speak. He started to do the heavy breathing bit so I gave him the usual spiel about what Switchboard is all about. Was going to put the phone down but I could hear he was still there, so I said, ‘Please speak to me’ and he said ‘I’m gay’. Spoke to him again and said it was ‘Great to be gay’ but he said ‘I’ve got to go now’ and hung up.
TW: Still to this day we get people calling Switchboard who aren’t able to say anything the volunteer uses the methods that are described in this log book entry and then you just hear ‘I’m gay’ or ‘I think I’m lesbian’ or ‘I think I am trans’ and the call ends and you as the volunteer could have been the first person that they’ve ever said that to.
TW: You’re listening to the Log Books – stories from Britain’s LGBTQ+ history and conversations about being queer today.
AS: In partnership with Switchboard: the LGBT+ helpline. I’m Adam Smith.
TW: I’m Tash Walker.
AS: This is episode 7 of the Log Books - “It’s great to be gay.”
So, this episode we are talking about isolation and loneliness and mental health.
TW: We are speaking to former volunteers including those on nightshifts, people living in different parts of the country such as Derbyshire, London, and even the remote Scottish islands.
AS: When I was a teenager, and I was going into MSN chat rooms and Yahoo chatrooms and coming out there - or at least having chats there with other gay people- I definitely wasn’t isolated from other people. I had really really great friends and family around me. I think it was that thing of being isolated from that part of my self .. the gay part …which is all of me. So that was specific kind of isolation
TW: I think I really struggled because I didn’t have anyone around me who was going through what I felt like I was going through.
I think we all have felt a bit different in our lives, but DJ Ritu tells us what she did about it.
I think I always knew that I was different and when I when I tried to imagine myself being an adult I actually saw myself as being married to a woman. And I didn’t really have any sort of plan to marry a guy - was very strange. Nevertheless I went through the usual route of trying to normalise. I had boyfriends in my teenage years. Kept thinking if I met the right guy then I would be somehow cured of these weird feelings that I didn’t’ talk to anyone about - I couldn’t talk to anyone about.
So, I felt very confident in me as a person and very happy with who I was and my preference - my orientation- but I didn’t know anybody like me that I could talk to and say you know are ‘there more of us or is there just a couple of us on the planet’ I had no idea at that stage.
Hi I am Sali. The main issue was that I just felt very isolated I’m not quite sure how I managed it, but I managed to get a subscription to Gay Times which in those days was an absolutely massive pink -it was literally printed onto pink newspaper – it was like the old financial times was. And it was massive, and it used to fold it up and hide it behind the boiler and have very long baths trying to read it.
I decided to phone Switchboard when I was about 12 years old, and we lived on an estate. I think there were about two phone boxes. So had my tea and I went out, and I got on the phone box I had all my change ready -and the first time I called I listened to the person’s voice, and I put the phone down. And I felt so terrible and guilty about that. But I was too scared to continue the call.
A few days later I got up the courage to make the call and I said my name. I was a bit worried that somebody might be able to track me because you were very paranoid in those days. But the chap was really reassuring, and he told me there was nothing wrong with me and there were plenty of us - especially around London and in other countries. And although I was too young to be able to go to any clubs or events or anything like that …that … just to hang on in there and things would get better.
When I phoned Switchboard, I think the main thing I wanted to do - was to talk to somebody who was like me. To know that I wasn’t on my own, I wasn’t from another planet, and what I was feeling was perfectly normal. I wanted to feel less isolated and to know that … you will grow up, and you’ll have more choices and opportunities, and things that you can do. So basically, that there was light at the end of the tunnel.
Here is a log book entry. It’s dated 18th August 1975 and the volunteer is called Paul.
The entry says: Had a really good call from a woman asking where her husband can meet gay people to talk to etc. because he’s in a state and she doesn’t like him being unhappy. A really nice person – wow!
That’s the end of the entry.
My name is Elaine and I’d like to just bring my own personal experience into this because I actually went to university at East London and studied Counselling Psychology. I worked the National Children’s Home helpline -called Careline- and then I went onto work at Child Line and in my years of working probably listened to thousands of calls - and reading that entry reminds me of all the thousands of calls that I’ve personally taken over my career and listened to through working on helplines.
TW: Helplines are so often at the forefront of supporting people and I think that is never more true than when people were doing a night shift at Switchboard.
I’ve particularly like to do the night shift. I mean during the day you might get a lot of calls about -where can I go and meet people in … Bristol or something like -sort of fairly straightforward calls but nights are .. tend to be when people perhaps bare their souls more.
Night is when your troubles loom large - when your worries loom large. Very lonely, isolated, gay people - obviously many young but also many older and to think of someone that has gone without love and human contact, sexual contact with another person …reciprocal …into their 30s and 40s. This is this is very sad. I can’t say I enjoyed those long calls … because they were sometimes upsetting ... there were also, I mean upsetting in the sense that you would emphasize with the people.
There was one person who always was wanted to know when I was going to be on the phones at night would chat. And he had been in the war and terribly burnt. So he not only had that physical disfigurement -which on the gay scene was an issue then, as sadly still an issue these days … ideas of what is good looking. But it had … then the experience of just trying to find …find other gay people when he was so scarred. I think he was a pilot and had been shot down. It really really bought you up …stop… and think my own difficulties seemed so minor compared to that. Now, he also told me an interesting story - there was just for those war years what with all the Americans in London and also the blackout there was a feeling of real sexual freedom going on - which sadly was lost after the war, and it taken a long time for people to get that back - so there were some positive stories. But its not all harrowing and difficult. I was both physically as night shifts can be quite long but also often in emotionally drained after that.
One of the most memorable calls I had was late at night - it was a guy on a fishing boat off the Outer Hebrides. I think it was about 12.30 at night and he phoned through on I think they radio through and then it goes on a landline call -and he desperately needed someone to speak to. Because he had no one. He couldn’t tell anyone that he was gay - being the skipper of a fishing boat, you know that’s like super masculine stuff. And speaking to his crew who they rely on and he relies on for their lives. So he just needed someone to talk to there wasn’t a guy on that night so I just sat and talked to him and he just needed someone to speak to just to let it out.
Feb 4th 1976.
A man phoned at 1 o’clock talked of suicide but this was largely a matter of the bottle. His lover left for Australia yesterday - he’s going to sleep it off this afternoon and phone back tonight. No name.
AS: Switchboard has to take some of the hardest calls that you can possibly imagine having to take - such as those about suicide, as Diana says.
We had to make a decision. Do you let that person - depending on their situation and what they’ve explained -do you just stay on the line and speak to them until they the calls ends and obviously perhaps their lives have ended. Or do you - if you think it is a call for help- make the decision of getting someone on another line to get in touch with the police because they were the only ones that could track the call and get that person help So every time someone phoned that had taken tablets -then you had to make that decision. What did you do because if they were really suffering and they were in pain constantly and they were coming near the end of their life and they decided they just wanted someone to verbally hold their hand until the last moment. You had to make that decision - that you were going to hold their hand and let them make that decision of their own or you were going to decide that it was more of a call for help and then get the police involved. So that was a balance act of every call.
AS: You get the sense from volunteers’ stories and log book entries of callers alone at home at night.
TW: But sometimes there is nothing more isolating than feeling alone in a crowd of people. Something that Chryssy has found in her research into trans people in the 70s.
So there are 70s and I’ve talked to some people who I’d describe - very poignantly- covertly buying clothes and getting on a train, and changing in the toilets in the train, and then walk …coming from outside London for example… and walking round London and then back on the train and changing again. And doing this for a period of time and then the pressure building up so much that they purged - was the phrase -that was used or still is used perhaps - burnt all the clothes that they had collected and all the makeup went and everything and after a few months or a bit longer it starts again. And you know these people are saying I really didn’t know there was anyone else in the world that did this I thought I was all by myself.
TW: Yeah, that sense of loneliness, isolation made worst historically by the fact that both homosexuality and being transgender have been classified as mental health conditions.
This is a log book entry from May 8 1976.
A caller asked for the name of a psychiatrist got very shirty when I approached him as to why he wanted to see a psychiatrist. So, he may phone back sometime with bitter complaints. Apparently, he is unhappy at being gay but was so defensive that there was little I could do.
TW: So much of history is about people not understanding homosexuality and just excluding those people - whether that’s because of religion, race, or culture. Just as DJ Ritu felt.
What I’ve worked out is that I think because I didn’t feel included, and I felt excluded, and I didn’t feel I belonged anywhere. I was an Indian kid growing up in East London in the 60s and 70s when the National Front were marching through Ilford High Road all the time. I got called the P-word, the P A K I word everyday of my life as a child. On the street, in my school, you name it - we were frightened of skin heads and there were skin heads around us all the time. And then there was the sexuality side. Again I didn’t feel I belonged and I felt alone very … very alone.
AS: So, calling Switchboard and speaking to a volunteer like Tony on the other end of the line must have been so important for someone who wants to feel accepted.
The process of taking calls: ‘Hello this is Gay Switchboard. My name is Tony. Can I help you?’ And that was always I think the opening or something words on that line.
When I’d had the call, I just felt a sense of calmness in myself and excitement because instead of having to struggle with the here and now - I could start planning the future then and to think about where I was going to live, what I was going do, and how was I gonna meet more people like me in the future.
TW: There are so many stigmas mentioned in the log books and one of them is not only about mental health conditions -as they would describe it back then - but also seeking help through a counsellor. And I think that is definitely a stigma that still stands today that people often need to reach out for especially if they are experiencing isolation and loneliness and it can be a really helpful path to understand that more.
AS: And the medical profession has changed - like a lot -over the time that Switchboard has been taking calls. And it has changed how it views these things.
TW: Yeah, exactly it was only in 1993 that the World Health Organisation declassified homosexuality as a mental health disorder and it wasn’t until last year in 2018 that they did the same thing for being transgender.
AS: 2018 seems so late for that and in the UK conversation therapy is still not illegal.
TW: That is one of many outstanding problems for LGBTQ+ people today. There are people living among us -maybe just around the corner from you who have lived all their lives under these kinds of pressures being medically stigmatised for being transgender or persecuted by the police for being gay and now many of those people are isolated all over again now they are elderly.
AS: We talked to Dr Chryssy Hunter whose own stories you heard earlier in this episode and in other episodes about one issue of loneliness today – the older LGBT+ generation.
My name Chryssy Hunter and I work at Open Doors London and I’m the volunteer coordinator. So, Open Doors London is a charity that represents people over the age of 50 from the LGBTQ communities -across London. And our mission statement says we are here to help people overcoming loneliness and isolation. There is an interesting generational aspect to being queer and various ways when we say people over 50 - we ought to recognise that is several generations our oldest members are in their 90s. And 50 can be quite young.
But as older LGBTQ people have children and networks to sustain them and sustain them just in terms of bringing joy to their lives. Poverty if you look at the statistics LGBTQ populations and older LGBTQ people - there’s more poverty than with non LGBTQ people.
But there is also fewer networks and I think its quite particularly impactful for people who’ve moved to a place like London and gone out on gay scenes and have become marginalised by the age fascism of LGBT life sometimes. Or the gay scene falling off the LGBT scene in London falling off in terms of pubs - specifically targeted pubs and clubs for LGBTQ people.
Their experiences, I think in general. very different to people who are out in their 20s. Older people -have possibly or arguably- got more difficulty with a lack of family and connections. Many many people in the 60s, 70s, 80, 90s drifted down to London because it was an easier place to be LGBTQ than home. Organisations that are set up to look after older people are often not welcoming to LGBTQ people - sometimes in times of negative attitudes but sometimes just because they don’t know. Is just a lack of knowledge. That is one thing that Opening Doors is trying to go into those organisations and analyse what the problem and say -well you do have problems here. It is not ok to say we treat everyone the same some people need to be treated differently. In Camden we have a number of people who live in Camden Open Doors is part of UK Camden someone did some research and 97% of our members who live in Camden 97% of them have never used the mainstream Age UK Camden services and only use Open Doors London services because they don’t feel comfortable to be open in non LGBTQ environments.
AS: As we’ve heard in this episode, Tash, so many of the stories in the log books are about loneliness and depression and how Switchboard volunteers handled those kind of calls what are we going to hear about next?
TW: Next we are going to hear about health.
TW: Calls to Switchboard are confidential so to bring the log books to life we’ve changed the caller’s names.
AS: The Log Books is produced by Shivani Dave, Adam Smith and Tash Walker in partnership with Switchboard: the LGBT+ helpline.
TW: If you think other people would like The Log Books please rate and review us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. These ratings and reviews really help others to discover the show. You can send us your feedback and stories to email@example.com
AS: Our music is by Tom Foskett-Barnes and our artwork is by Natalie Doto.
TW: Thanks to Stef Dickers and team at the Bishopsgate Institute.
AS: The folks at Acast,
TW: Gareth Mitchell at Imperial College London,
AS: The staff and volunteers at Switchboard.
TW: And all the contributors who shared their stories.
45 years on Switchboard continues to take phone calls from 10am to 10pm every day. If you are affected by any of the issues in this podcast or need to discuss anything to do with gender identity or sexuality you can call Switchboard on 0300 3300630; email firstname.lastname@example.org; or instant message via switchboard.lgbt where you can also donate money or time to help.