In 1974, the LGBTQ+ helpline, Switchboard, was set up for members of the community needing someone to talk to.
For years, volunteers listened to anyone who wanted to talk about gender identity and sexuality – and they noted these calls down in a series of log books.
While the charity and the helpline still exists, for years, these forgotten documents, spanning almost 30 years, went unread – that is until Tash Walker, chair at Switchboard, found them in the call room seven years ago.
Now, the log books, a record of the queer experience in Britain, have been uncovered and published for the first time.
And Tash says the books shine a light on the parallels between the gay experience of the seventies, and the treatment of transgender people today.
Speaking on Metro.co.uk’s podcast, Smutdrop, Tash explains how she found them in the office’s loft crawlspace.
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She says: ‘I opened one box to find all these wonderful photos and boring minutes and all sorts of things. I’d heard the rumours of these infamous log books in the call room around Switchboard, and when I opened one, falling into my lap were these wonderful handwritten notes from volunteers about the calls that they had taken from 1974 to 2003.
‘It’s like this amazing handwritten diary. It’s living and breathing with laughter and tears.’
The log books contain a mixture of practical calls and queries, as well as heartbreaking stories confessing shame and isolation.
Tash spent two years reading them and cataloguing them, before having them archived at the Bishopsgate Institute in London for public viewing.
She says: ‘At the beginning of every shift, the volunteers would look at the logbook, and you’d read what the calls were from the last shift. They were notes by the volunteers about the kinds of calls that were taken.
‘Alongside all of these wonderful calls, you have this dialogue between the volunteers, often educating each other. But also you have these little bickering fights about who’s not done the washing up or not. It’s just fantastic.
‘It’s undoubtedly the best book I’ve ever read. It was a roller coaster ride – laughing one minute, crying the next.’
Switchboard was set up in 1974 in response to the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales in 1967, and the helpline originally operated for five hours every evening in a small room above a bookshop near King’s Cross Station.
It proved particularly helpful during the 1980s, when it became the leading source of information on the then new and unknown disease of HIV/AIDS.
Later that decade, Section 28 was introduced, a law which banned local authorities and schools from ‘promoting homosexuality’, meaning young people were unable to talk to teachers or youth workers about how they were feeling.
Tash, who grew up under Section 28, recalls how isolating the experience was, explaining that the lack of support left her battling feelings of ‘deep rooted shame’ about her sexuality.
She adds: ‘I reached out to a teacher when I was at school, and they weren’t able to talk to me. I felt very alone.
‘I grew up in Plymouth, which was quite a homophobic city. I had this sense of, “Who am I? What is this about? Why do I feel so afraid?”
‘I came out young, and I had a lot of homophobia thrown at me because of that. And it made me want other people not to have to experience that.’
Tash moved to Bristol where she began working as a volunteer on the local branch of Switchboard. She now sees her own experiences being replicated for young trans people.
Tash adds: ‘Reading all those logbook entries, and being on the phones, and then being on the board at Switchboard as a trustee, [I’ve seen] the themes of shame, isolation and loneliness. All the calls that were happening then, are still happening now.’
‘It’s so easy to draw the parallels between what’s happening today around gender identity, and what was happening then around sexuality.
‘You could lose your job if you came out in the seventies. And if you look at the AIDS crisis, doctors didn’t know what was going on there.
‘You look at what’s happening around trans healthcare today. And people walking down the streets, how dangerous it was to be gay, the fact that it was seen as a mental illness, that you could be sanctioned for being homosexual.
And you look at what’s happening now, around sex education and what’s experienced by trans people in schools. It’s so shocking. The parallels are so strong; what’s happening with trans rights at the moment is heartbreaking.’
The log books can be viewed at the Bishopsgate Institute in London, or you can download the Log Books podcast.
To call Switchboard, dial 0800 0119 100. Alternatively send an instant message on the website, or email [email protected].
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