In conversation with Switchboard LGBT+

To celebrate Pride 2024, we sit down with the UK-based charity to discuss the importance of their work in the past, present and the future…
  • WriterRy Gavin
  • IllustratorJess Ardizzone
  • Creative DirectionKat Beckwith

Switchboard’s reach stretches far. For just over 50 years, the UK charity has been at the helm of providing pivotal and long-lasting support for LGBTQIA+ people from all over the country. Founded in 1974, the London Gay Switchboard, as it was known as then, started off the back of Gay News (which would become Gay Times) as well as endless requests from members of the community writing in to find out information regarding places to stay, how to come out, places to go to feel safe, and so on. In the 70s, the need for Switchboard was clear. And five decades later, the necessity for the charity is just as clear as ever. UGG® is proud to support Switchboard’s work within the LGBTQIA+ community, having donated $100,000 to the charity to date. 

Here, we sit down with Switchboard’s CEO, Stephanie Fuller, to map the impact of the charity and the profound effect it has on the LGBTQIA+ community today… 

How would you begin to discuss the impact that the charity has had on the LGBTQIA+ community and beyond? 

On a grand scale, we know that since we started, we’ve held safe spaces for over 4 million service users that have reached out to Switchboard. We know we’ve supported over four million people that needed a safe space, someone to talk to about something that they possibly have never said to another person before. That kind of anonymous space to do that is really important. We don’t necessarily get to know what happens next when someone calls us because what they do next is obviously up to them. The other thing that we’ve done is provide that space for really difficult times for our community. We’ve been there right through the equalisation of the age of consent through the HIV/AIDS crisis (when we were a 24 hour service at that time). We’ve been there through Section 28, through the bombing of the Admiral Duncan pub, same-sex marriage campaigning, right through to the present day and the attack on the trans community, which we see a lot of the calls relating to. 

With Switchboard, what’s really interesting is that you almost get a live feed of how our community’s feeling and how we’re feeling when certain issues blow up in the very media-driven world we live in now. You can almost see the connection between news event calls to Switchboard. When the footballer Jake Daniels came out, we got lots of calls from young guys that play Sunday morning football and Saturday football, whereby nobody in their team knows they’re gay, and they wanted to have someone to talk to about it. We are I suppose a weathervane of what’s going on in our community, and I think that’s really powerful.

One thing I and I think a few other people would presume about the charity is that it is used primarily by young people, but I have a feeling that’s not the case. What can you say about the older generations who use the platform? 

You could describe us for our community as nationwide generalists. We’re not there for one age group. We’re not there for one letter of the LGBTQIA+ family. We’re there for all the letters. All the age groups and all the locations in the UK. 75 per cent of our service users contact us from outside of London. 34 per cent of our service users are 27 and under. We’ve got service users that call us who are in their 80s.

If you think back to the 70s and the people that were activists and fighting for our rights and coming out, they were most likely in their 20s and 30s at that time. Those people are now are 50 years older, in their 70s and 80s. What we’re getting is a lot more calls about loneliness, loss of community and not being able to feel connected to the community in a world that’s moved so digitally. Where a lot of queer spaces have closed and there aren’t the places for them to go and meet people. Maybe a partner’s died or they’re moving into the care system for the first time in their life. And, actually, the care system isn’t really ready for people from our community to arrive en masse, which is what is starting to happen. All those sorts of things are starting to happen and we are getting more and more calls around isolation and loneliness. I would suggest that this is the beginning of that wave of calls. I think that we’re going to see many, many more of these in the coming years. 

That’s an interesting point about loneliness, because we’re supposed to be living in the most connected of times and yet there is that profound and growing sense of loneliness… 

The world’s shifting constantly in terms of how we access information and how our friendships move. We’re definitely seeing people talking more about loneliness. That’s quite multi generational as well, it’s not just older people. You can feel quite isolated even within our community if you’re young. And I think we’re seeing that too as well. There’s definitely an emerging trend, which I think is, sadly, here to stay. We’re going to see more and more of that in the years to come.

Beyond loneliness, what do you notice about the differences that older generations come to talk about compared to under 27s?

A lot of it will be more relationship based, to be honest. It might be about bereavement – starting a new relationship later in life. How do you do that? These are all things that people find difficult, especially within our community. We definitely get conversations with people who are thinking that they’ve not had children, but now perhaps they want to, but they’re single – how are they going to go about that? 

Focusing on the younger people that use the platform, have you noticed that a lot of concerns around this kind of divided viewpoint. They might, you know, have grown up loving Harry Potter, but then J.K. Rowling says what J. K. Rowling says… Do a lot of people come with this split? With this feeling of abandonment, and then not knowing what to think?

I would say actually the younger generation seem very clear in their sort of thinking in terms of where they stand on issues and matters. It feels quite black and white. Maybe sometimes you could argue perhaps a bit too black and white and there’s not enough grey in there. What you’ve definitely got is a generation that is not overexposed, but they have a greater exposure to social media, where messages that may be harmful to them are likely to appear.

Ever since rolling news was created, it almost feels like that’s when things started to really roll. Because rolling news needs news, it needs feeding and so there’s always a story – there’s always a narrative and none of it’s very good. In terms of younger people contacting Switchboard, I think you could say that there’s a stronger rooting in mental health concerns and worries about how they’re feeling about their place in the world. And the future of the country that they live in.

Over the past 50 years, what would you say the charity might have noticed about how people engaging with their own identities has evolved over those years?

That’s a really good question. I think people are more comfortable now in exploring the idea of their identity, not just through their sexuality, but also through their gender. That isn’t to say that it didn’t always happen, though. It’s not like these things weren’t already happening. For example, Switchboard’s first trans volunteer joined in the 80s. And is still volunteering now. Gender has always been part of the landscape. But I think it’s now being a bit more clearly understood and explored, and so we’re seeing that more obviously now than we would have done in the past.

We’re getting a lot of calls now from people that went to school under Section 28, didn’t realise it, and now have become aware of it, and are angry about it: ‘I was a 5 year old in 1988, and so when I started school and finished in 2003, I never had any visibility in my educational settings to people like myself’. They’re now really angry about it, and I’ve recognised that they’ve had something taken from them, and they’re keen to stop that happening again. 

One of the big missions for Switchboard must be showing up in the right places,  online and off, right? 

It’s a really good point because a lot of the people that reach out to Switchboard are not out.  So they’re probably not following queer influencers and things like that. They don’t feel comfortable being in that space because they’re really not sure if that’s them or not. And so we have advertising on some sort of online content. We have very active Instagram feeds, things like that. We work with influencers to kind of get us out into certain spaces.

We also have some really good partnership campaigns – like the one with UGG® – which helps us get our brand and that phone number into places that we could never get it. And that is incredibly useful for us because it may be that someone else will see that number in a brand, in a space that they’re comfortable being in. Brand partnerships are actually incredibly powerful for an organisation like ours because those brands have got far bigger communications machines than we have. And they enable us to get in front of audiences that we wouldn’t ordinarily be able to reach. 

How might the calls you get from people in the UK be of a different nature to that of other countries? What in this country is more of a point of focus, or is more of an issue?

I suppose it would be similar in other countries, but there is such a toxic debate taking place around gender identity. The UK is probably the hot house of that conversation at the moment. We really see the damage that that is doing in the calls to Switchboard. We see the name of the Prime Minister regularly show up in conversation, with people referencing things that have been said. There’s no getting away from the fact that our location affects the type of conversations we get… The country’s not as inclusive as it was, and people often call Switchboard to sort of sense check that with another person – see whether there’s some sort of recognition of somebody else feeling the same way. 

You mention that the UK isn’t as inclusive as it used to be. Do you think there’s been a regression?

It’d be hard to argue that there isn’t some sort of regression going on, unfortunately. I suspect this is the price of progress – in that it’s not linear and it will meet resistance along the way. We’re going through a period of resistance. It has lots of echoes of the 1980s and the kind of stigmatisation of gay men, which was very similar to what’s happening now. I’m sure there’s a connection between those two things… There’s a kind of pushback.

What’s something you’d like people to know about Switchboard that they might not already? 

I would like people to know that our service is entirely staffed by volunteers. We have 265 volunteers at the moment. We are likely to be over 300 by the end of this year. That’s due to the sheer demand for our service. Our volunteers are from the community. They all self identify as members of the LGBTQIA+ communities.  And it’s no small commitment to be a volunteer at Switchboard. Their training lasts around 60 hours. When you get through to a volunteer at Switchboard, they’ve really made a commitment to the community to be there for someone. I can’t celebrate them enough, frankly, for the time they give. And the care and the thought that they give to it. I’d like people to know that because of the pandemic, we became fully digital. And so now you can volunteer for Switchboard from anywhere in the UK, and we can train you where you are.

Finally, what’s something that you’d like to say to politicians, or an incoming government? 

I would like them to understand that the constellation of letters that make up LGBTQIA+ are people. Real people. None of us exist in isolation. All of us come from families, whatever those families look like. Most will have friends, partners, workplaces, colleagues. And when you demonise any aspect of that group, you aren’t demonising just some soulless individual, you are demonising communities and you’re damaging real people. I would urge all politicians to consider greater care in how they use language and how they weaponise identities. And that is for all politicians, because I think they all have an enormous amount to learn on that front.