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London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard: The telephone number that helped make gay okay

Forty years of counselling callers from all over the world has given London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard a frontline view of changing attitudes to homosexuality. Its volunteers tell Nick Duerden why they'll carry on listening

A call came through to the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard the other day from a heterosexual man wanting to talk about some sexual problems he had been experiencing with his girlfriend. Andy Davies, a long-term volunteer here and currently the Switchboard's secretary, lent a sympathetic ear, while waiting for what he presumed was the inevitable coda – an awkward confession of a gay affair on the side. These sorts of calls to the LLGS are, after all, increasingly common. But the confession didn't come.

"It seems he simply wanted someone to talk to, and of course that's precisely what we're here for," Davies says, smiling genially. "Where else, outside of a medical situation, could you phone up a complete stranger to talk about erectile dysfunction?"

The London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard is celebrating its 40th anniversary this month. It was founded in 1974 with a simple aim: to provide help and information to the capital's gay community. At the time, Davies says, it was much needed. There were a couple of similar outfits, the Gay Liberation Front and the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, but they had political affiliations (left and right, respectively). An independent alternative was deemed necessary and so the LLGS was born, setting up store beneath a bookshop in Camden, north London. It had two phone lines.

"The calls poured in," says Davies. "And they haven't stopped yet."

Essentially, this was directory enquiries with a twist; people mostly calling to find out where they might discover a like-minded community in their area, the nearest gay bar or club. But these were the dark days of the 1970s, when homosexuality had only recently been decriminalised, and so a great many calls also came from people in the closet, struggling with whether or not to come out and terrified of the consequences if they did. These days, the Switchboard is more likely to receive enquiries from parents, teachers and social workers wanting to know what to do when a child comes out and for advice on how best to deal with it.

"They want to be ready to help and to empathise, which is good," he says.

Over the years, the nature of the calls has shifted. "We will always get people calling wanting to discuss relationship problems and low-level mental health issues, but we get an increasing amount of calls from people in straight relationships, suddenly realising they harbour same-sex desires."

A lot of wives, he says, phone in to say they've found gay porn on their husbands' iPhones and want to know what to do about it. And then there are the men who declare themselves straight, but who secretly frequent male-only saunas, or have gay flings while on business trips. The Switchboard's role here is not to offer advice, but merely to listen, to explore possible options and to remind callers of the importance of safe sex.

"In the Nineties, safe sex was very much on the agenda. Condoms were everywhere. But that message has got a little lost recently and a lot of STDs are on the rise again, particularly drug-resistant gonorrhoea. So we always steer the conversation to sexual health, wherever possible," says Davies.

Over the decades, the Switchboard has had a frontline view of the nation's changing mores and attitudes. The slow evolution has kept them busy. In the 1970s, homosexuality was still something to be whispered about. By the 1980s, there was the Aids epidemic and the accompanying hysteria. Then, in 1999, there was the nail-bombing of the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho, in the heart of London's gay community, which killed two people and injured 30 others.

"The police were just coming out of the Stephen Lawrence review," Davies says, referring to the black teenager murdered in south London in 1994, the fallout from which shone an unflattering spotlight on police conduct. "They were paranoid about public perception, I think, so they asked us for our support and guidance."

The Switchboard, which won a Queen's Award for Voluntary Services in 2008, now deals with 15,000 calls a year, mostly from the UK, occasionally from further afield (one came from Peru). It's still a shoestring operation, with just one full-time member of staff. The rest are volunteers, numbering anywhere between 100 and 160 at any given time. It's rewarding work, says Davies, but gruelling, too. Consequently, there is a high burnout rate. "The average volunteer, at least those that make it past our rigorous training programme, lasts about two years. But we're lucky – we rarely have to advertise, because we have such a long waiting list. There are always people wanting to volunteer; to offer their help in some way."

Its HQ today is an ungainly concrete bunker in north London that could sorely do with a makeover, its boardroom redolent of social services 30 years ago, all peeling paint and threadbare carpets. The forlorn kitchenette is enlivened only by the packets of biscuits brought in by volunteers.

The telephone room operates six lines and right now, on a Wednesday morning, there is just one volunteer present, browsing through a newspaper while awaiting the next call.

Davies says that mornings can be pretty busy, particularly those after a heavy night before, the witching hour so frequently being the time that relationship issues come to a head. By this evening, he says, all six lines will be manned, and the phones won't stop ringing. Though it once boasted a 24-hour service, it was difficult to find the volunteers necessary for such habitually quiet times and so it now operates from 10am until 11pm, 365 days a year. Public holidays, Christmas especially, are hectic.

The Switchboard's set-up is pretty much identical to the Samaritans. One might even query the need for a dedicated gay helpline at all. According to Switchboard, it is vital.

The gay community needs its own organisation, Davies says, because "people still don't fully trust organisations where they feel they might not get a sympathetic ear. I'm not just talking about the Samaritans, but Citizens' Advice, too. Callers often ask the sexual orientation of those they are speaking to."

And so, while straight people are employed in running the office, only gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are permitted to take calls. The fact that sexual orientation continues to prove so divisive in 2014 may surprise some, but then this is a world where Ukip MPs appear convinced that the gay community is somehow responsible for global warming, and much else besides. Overcoming such prejudice, says Andy Davies, is a struggle.

"Yes, attitudes are changing and it's true we live in a much more liberal society – we have the same age of consent, we have civil partnerships now, and gay marriage is about to be put on the statute book – but I'm afraid you cannot legislate against personal prejudice. If a man walks down the street wearing a dress, he is as likely to get hassled today as he ever was; the same for two women walking hand in hand."

And so they continue to deal with prank calls and those from men hoping to speak to a real-life lesbian (a fantasy for many, by all accounts), or the confessions of those belatedly realising they might not be straight after all. Asked whether it surprises him that so many people are discovering these latent desires, Davies simply smiles wryly. He's been here ages – nothing surprises him any more.

To contact the LLGS, visit: llgs.org.uk or call 0300 330 0630.