LGBT Phonelines in 2015: still needed?

BCN 129 cover

This originally appeared in BCN issue 129, February 2015

Edinburgh helpline is on 0300 123 2523 and runs every Tuesday & Wednesday 12 – 9pm

In the 1980s LGBT – or more likely “lesbian and gay” – telephone helplines were a vital source of information and support for bi and gay people around the UK.
They were also a source of tension: in the mid 80s London’s Lesbian & Gay Switchboard decided to bar bisexual volunteers from working on their line, a decision which took a long time to reverse and alienated many bis from volunteering with gay community projects.

Like print media and economic growth, it’s easy to think of ‘gay switchboard’ phone helplines as a thing of the past.  Yet they’re still doing plenty of business: this month, we caught up with the Edinburgh LGBT Helpline.

So tell us about the phoneline
We’re a fairly small and new helpline, opening in May 2013. We’re open two days a week from 12-9pm and took around 1000 calls in our first 16 months of opening. It’s difficult to say exactly the nature of the calls, as we get so much variation in themes from the expected “coming out” calls to any issue you could possibly imagine. We do record the general themes of our calls and the most common issue for people is relationships – almost half of our callers want support with their romantic and/or sexual relationships. Sexuality and loneliness/isolation are also very common issues.

Do you monitor who calls – are there many bi callers?
We monitor our calls where it is appropriate, but don’t always know a caller’s sexual identity. For example, if a caller is discussing their relationship with a same-sex partner, we don’t assume that they are gay, bi or something else unless they use a particular term themselves. We took a survey of our callers in the summer of this year and found that 17% of our callers identified as bisexual. However, there are a lot of people who talk to us about being attracted to men and women, but who do not identify with the term bisexual (or indeed any other term).

Do bi callers have different issues?
Sometimes bi callers have different issues, yes. I’ve personally taken a lot of calls from bi people asking me “is this normal? Is it really okay to be attracted to men and women?”, so a lot of positive affirmation and stereotype-busting needs to be done. Our gay/lesbian callers often have a lot of anxieties around their sexuality too, but it often is in different ways – not many gay/lesbian callers question if being gay/lesbian is a bona-fide identity that people besides them actually experience. Also, we sometimes have to reassure bi callers that we here to support them with issues in their opposite-sex relationships as much as with same-sex relationships. It is worth noting though that we speak with lots of bi people who are completely comfortable with their sexuality but have other stuff going on that they want to explore, much as with our LGT callers.

Is there training on bi issues for helpline volunteers and if so how, e.g. in-house or run by a bi organisation.
Yes, all the way through the training course. We don’t have a single bisexual awareness session – but then we don’t have a single gay, lesbian or trans* awareness session either. We introduce a range of sexual and gender identities to our volunteers on the first session and then make sure that all identities and experiences are revisited throughout the training, so bi issues are prevalent throughout. We consider ourselves to be a bi-aware organisation so we do the training ourselves. We are most definitely not a Gay and Lesbian organisation who pop the B and T on the end without any consideration as to what those letters actually mean. If anything, we sometimes put a little extra emphasis on bi and trans issues as many of our volunteers are already aware of gay and lesbian issues/ identities when they begin.

Finally for local readers: how do people volunteer / are you recruiting?
We will be recruiting in early 2015, yes! Please do drop a line to [email protected] if you’re interested, we’d love to hear from you!