Celebrating 40 Years of Gay Switchboard Ireland
Gay Switchboard Ireland turns 40 this year. Andrew Darley talks to Tony Cooney about how the service has diversified to meet the needs of its users, and mental health in the LGBT community.
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Gay Switchboard Ireland, which offers confidential peer support for the LGBT community, celebrated 40 years of their service this year. Originally called Tel-A-Friend, the LGBT helpline began in 1974 when members in the community saw a need for help within Ireland. Since first answering the phones that year, Gay Switchboard Ireland has continued to grow, diversify and reach out throughout 40 years of social change. In the last year they answered 2,761 calls, which emphasizes that no matter how times have changed in terms of LGBT visibility and access to information, the Gay Switchboard is still an important touchstone of support. It offers information and support on a vast range of issues around LGBT issues including; questions around identity, coming out, mental health, sexual health and social information. It also takes a strong stance that it is not simply for people who identify as LGBT, it is also for family and friends who may need education and advice about their loved one. The group is run and delivered by trained volunteers who come from the LGBT community that they support. Andrew Darley spoke to Tony Cooney, former Director and current Training Coordinator of the service, about how the service has been diversified to meet the needs of its users, the issue of mental health in the LGBT community and what it is like working in Ireland’s oldest LGBT support service.
First of all, congratulations on Gay Switchboard Ireland celebrating its 40th birthday this year, you must be thrilled. Can you tell me about the work of the service and the ideals that are at its heart?
The idea for this service in 1973 when the Irish Gay Rights Movement got together to do some activism for the community. From there, two strands developed: one was community support, from which the Gay Switchboard developed, whilst the other strand was activism, which brought about the National LGBT Federation. They first started taking calls some time between March and July 1974 with just three volunteers on the team. Yet when they started they couldn’t use the word ‘gay’ or even advertise in the phonebook or promote it as a gay helpline. That’s how the name Tel-A-Friend came about, despite the company name being Gay Switchboard.
We currently have 42 volunteers working with us and by the end of this summer we will have another 13 people fully trained. We’re a confidential helpline support service for the LGBT community. Everything is kept completely confidential. It’s this ethic that has kept us going for so long. People know that they can pick up the phone and speak to someone about what’s going on in their lives with a feeling of security. Also, people who use the service do not necessarily have to be LGBT to ring. You could be family or friends of someone and it always remains confidential. Our ethos is peer support: people from the community, supporting the community.
Obviously the service has grown substantially since the days of Tel-A-Friend. Has this growth been a case of ‘supply on demand’?
Very much so. It took a couple of years to find its feet. The first national advert in the Irish press was in 1978. Figures went from 388 calls in the first year to over 3000 the following year. There was a huge demand for people who didn’t even know what ‘gay’ was. A lot of married people called at that time who just needed that support. In 1979, 30% of calls were suicidal calls. So that gives an indication of what people were having to deal with. It was illegal to be homosexual. One in three people were those who were suicidal or with suicidal thoughts which was quite serious.
Then in the ’80s, the AIDS epidemic hit. In 1984, call rocketed to nearly 6000. People were in panic-mode over AIDS. It got to the point that the people working in the Switchboard went over to London to speak with relevant organisations to see how they could help and what they could do on the ground since it was such a stressful time. There was a drop in the ‘90s to around 5,000 calls a year and for the last few years averaged about 2,500 calls per year. You’d imagine that after 40 years after the service first started, there would be no need for it, but we had 2761 calls last year, so the issues may have changed but people still need support. While there has been great progress for LGBT people, it’s still not as easy for some people, especially those outside of the big towns and cities. If you’re living in a little village or you’re living on your own, you might not have access or information about the community so it’s not as easy to identify as LGBT.
Over the years, in what ways has the service been adapted to how the community engages with it? Has there been any lightbulb moments where you seen a gap in how you could reach further?
I started in 2008. In the mid-’00s, Switchboard advertised a seven day service but only had six or seven volunteers active. They had 30 or so volunteers but most of those shifts were not being covered. In 2007, the service was brought back to five days and I came in as a training coordinator. I trained 16 people and from there we were able to rebuild the service and grow every year. Sine then we’ve gone from five days to a seven day service. We also opened up a face-to-face drop-in service in collaboration with the Gay Health Network. We also provide e-mail support. So we’ve idenitified the needs in community and aimed to meet them.
When and why did you want to become involved with a service like this?
I used to be a volunteer with Samaritans. I was quite involved with them doing training and prison visits and I took a break. I was then approached to do some training and recruitment for Switchboard. I just thought to myself that if I was doing the training, it would be better if I was answering the phones, too. I wanted to have the experience of knowing what it was like so then I ended up volunteering. It’s been absolutely wonderful being able to diversify the service. The partnerships with other organisations has given us a little of funding that we need without having to look directly for it.
Have there been any challenges you’ve faced and had to overcome in getting the Switchboard to where it is today? Funding is probably one of them by the sounds of it.
Funding is probably our biggest challenge. Partnership work can be difficult because people will have different expectations of the service. Sometimes there has to be compromises to get to a point where it works for everyone involved. In terms of the drop-in service, that took about a year from the initial idea to when we opened the doors to people. A large part of that was teasing of issues with different partners. If you stick with it, it does work if everyone can see what the benefit is to the community. We look for a two year commitment from volunteers and we had a problem with the retention in the past. But we’ve overcome that with ongoing training and getting volunteers more involved. People join to be there for the community but they also join for other reasons. We try to accommodate that without diminishing what the Switchboard is about.
There has been significant research and evidence on mental health within in the LGBT community. Obviously a service like the Switchboard would be an outlet and a source of support for these issues. Do you feel these needs are being sufficiently met within the LGBT community?
It’s a loaded question but in short, probably not. There’s research evidence out there that indicates that LGBT people are seven times more at risk of taking their own life or thinking of suicide. The new Irish LGBT survey will hopefully identify needs of mental health needs within the community that may shape policy. We’re open in the evening but there’s a need for fuller services. Your mental health links in with your sexual health. The Gay Men’s Health Clinic here in Dublin is only open two evenings a week. That needs to be expanded so people can access it and get the treatment and information they need. If you’re not there before a certain time the queue is out the door. That impacts on someone’s mental, sexual and overall health because they’re all interlinked. If the services are under-resourced for any of those areas, it’s going to impact on their lives.
I’ve often thought about this in terms that it’s hard enough coming forward and opening up about personal issues and afraid that no-one will understand. Then being LGBT too, it’s almost as if it’s a double-stigma can manifest. Would you agree with any of that with any of that?
It’s constantly having to come out all the time. The idea of telling people you’re gay before you can get help or progress isn’t right. That links in with minority stress, meaning the stress put on LGBT by society at large Nst that anyone is pinpointed or picked out, but overall society sees LGBT as lesser and as a result people’s mental health can deteriorate.
I was at a conference on LGBT domestic violence and 26% of gay women reported domestic violence, and 23% of guys reported it as well. I thought that was really, really high. And that’s only the people who have reported it. There’s the people who are the victims, but there is also the perpetrator. I’m not condoning the perpetrators but they have issues as well. If they’re LGBT, they have that battle from day one when they’ve identified their sexuality and sometimes that can come out as aggression and violence. It’s one thing to look after the victim but the perpetrators need support as well, otherwise they’ll just keep doing it. We’re starting to see an increase in calls around this issue, the correct term for it is IPB i.e. intimate partner violence.
Polari’s tagline is “about life, not lifestyles”. We’re dedicated to looking at culture and the world around us from an individual queer perspective. I’m wondering whether you’ve considered how mainstream gay scene culture and media may feed into endorsing a certain lifestyle that people feel they need to buy into to feel validated and accepted?
The gay scene isn’t for everyone. It can be absolutely hard for people, especially if you’re coming out. The perception is that the only gay life is the bars and that’s where you go to meet people. If that’s what you want to do, that’s fine; but if it’s not, it can be hard to find your niche within the community. We do get calls from people who are comfortable being LGBT but the bars and clubs are not for them and they want to know what else is there out there. We would signpost them to groups, events or organizations that might suit them and what they are looking for. Last year I won a scholarship in Berlin to do an LGBT empowerment through the medium of art course. It was a really uplifting and enlightening to see. Whatever you wanted they had it, even painting butterflies in the park naked. I just thought it was brilliant.
Do you think then that there needs to be more of a focus on individuality in the gay community rather that fitting into or aligning into a certain LGBT stereotype?
Absolutely. The LGBT community go on about being victims but equally we can be just as hurtful and racist and damaging to people in our own community when we see someone who’s overtly camp or outside of what we perceive to be the norm. I think we can be as vicious as the rest of society. The LGBT community needs to have a good look at itself, to not forget what we have had to put up with. Acknowledge and accept the differences out there. I see this with the Trans community. I’m ashamed and embarrassed by some of the things gay people come out with because at the end of the day, we’re all people and we’re all entitled to live our lives the way we want, without judgement.
Adolescence for LGBT people are the formative years when people may begin to acknowledge and experiment with their sexuality, which can be exciting. But a common experience is that it can be a terrifying and painful time. I’m wondering if you think that adolescence today has been affected by the visibility and discussion in culture. Has it made it easier for LGBT people or even encourage some to feel it’s okay to come out even younger?
Yes is the simple answer to that. It’s easier for kids to come out to the point where so of them don’t have to come out, they just be themselves. They don’t have to come out, they’re just happy being with their friends and they don’t have to live a separate life to the rest of their classmates. But as with all progress there’s going to be repercussions. There are still people out there who won’t understand or will bully and put stigma on people.
I wish there were services like this when I was growing up. I remember when I was 17 or 18, I knew there was something different about me and getting called names in school because of it. You react to that and you internalize all that. Hopefully with education and the mainstreaming in art, television, music and culture, it’ll open it up more.
In what ways do you plan or hope for the Switchboard will expand and move forward in the future?
Two weeks ago we appointed our first ever female director, so I’m no longer the director. It’s now Maria Keogh which will be a huge positive for the service. This will be good in raising awareness. While the Dublin Lesbian Line is there, women don’t reach out the same way men do on the phones. Hopefully, having a female director will raise visibility and awareness. We’ve also started running a personal development courses in collaboration with the Gay Men’s Health service, which is a six week workshop to help build self-esteem and assertiveness. Also, for the first time ever we’ve submitted a statutory funding application to provide a live chat service, a chat forum. Most young people won’t pick up the phone and ring, we get very few young people. But they’ll text and instant message morning, noon and night. That’s the next line we’re going to go down in terms of expansion.
From your professional and personal experience, what advice would you give someone who is reading this that may be doubting or struggling with their sexuality or identity in general?
I’d say take your time. You’re not the first one who is going through this so there is support out there, please reach out. Don’t be afraid to say whatever it is you want to say and be who you are. Reach out because there is always going to be someone who will take you through it and you’ll get there .
For more information about Gay Switchboard Ireland please visit their official website
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