Originally set up in 1971 with the intention of being the counselling arm of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, "Fellowship for the Relief of the Isolated and Emotionally in Need and Distress" was far more widely known as 'FRIEND'. By 1977, its national organiser stopped being on the CHE board by right, and its newsletter stopped calling FRIEND "the befriending arm of the CHE".
Also in 1977, the London arm became a company limited by guarantee, Friend Counselling (London). As 'London Friend', it ended up operating from Caledonian Road N1, and was the venue used by the London Bisexual Group from around 1990 to its end around 2004 or 2005ish. Its website is here.
As other groups sprang up, a network was created as National Friend, becoming a company in 1987. The book's author, Macolm Macourt, is described as its company secretary and a lecturer at Newcastle upon Tyne polytechnic. He was also involved with Project SIGMA that looked at the sex lives of gay and bisexual men* from the start of the HIV/Aids epidemic in the UK.
After four pages of introduction – sections on "What is a 'helpline'?; What is a 'gay helpline?'; Why call them 'gay helplines'?; Scope of the book" – it's onto the main content.
p1. The development of helplines
At that point, he reckoned that there were 80 or so gay helplines in the UK and Ireland getting a combined 400,000 calls a year. Even if the biggest one, London's then 'Lesbian & Gay Switchboard' got half of them, that's still an average of about fifty calls a week for the rest.
The other thing that seems remarkable, looking back thirty years, is a description of the services available in a 'typical' area of the UK with around four to five million residents:
One 'lesbian and gay switchboard', with a volunteer base of about thirty people (3/4 of them men); one 'lesbian line', one FRIEND; and one 'Aids line'… plus three or four other ones based in the area's smaller towns.
There is also a section on what was going on in the UK around lesbian and gay rights, including the recent introduction of 'Section 28'.
At the time, London's annual "Lesbian and Gay Pride" march, by far the biggest event in the UK community attracted around thirty thousand LGBT participants (even if it would be eight years before the latter two were recognised in the event's name…)
p23. Imagine you are a volunteer and the telephone rings
The types of calls received, from silent, to asking about the line's confidentiality, and abusive calls.
p33. What do callers ask?
It suggests the three most common questions asked are:
- Am I gay/lesbian?
- Will I get Aids?
- Where is the best gay pub in town?
The first one is described as the most common and four examples are given:
"I don't want to be gay – nobody can make me, can they?"
"How do you know you're a lesbian?"
"I don't seem to be able to make friends with girls. Does that mean I'm queer?" (a 17-year old man)
Before looking at the question and at answers to it, another example, from 19-year old Simon, must not be forgotten:
"I saw a programme on television which made out that to have sex with another bloke was some big deal. I have sex with blokes and girls – so what's the fuss about?"
(Emphasis here, and elsewhere, mine – it's the first mention of anything bisexual in the book.)
The author says that Simon's call would have been rare ten or fifteen years earlier.. because of the 'what's the fuss' issue, rather than the bisexuality:
"Volunteers often find this type of call very difficult because they are unwilling to take Simon at face value, not because his sentiment" – not seeing the fuss about being sexual with both men and women, remember – "is unusual amongst young gay men and young lesbians, but because if Simon is experiencing no issues, why is he contacting a helpline?"
In the following "To 'be' or to 'do'" section – is being homosexual something that one 'is' or is it rather than some people 'do' sex with others of their own gender? – discussion of sexuality includes
In short, gay is something that one is, and therefore it should be possible to find an easy 'yes' or 'no' answer to the question 'Am I gay?' (Some supporters of this view also hold that there is a third type of person, the bisexual. Others regard such people as merely those who have yet to accept their basic sexual identity.)
Another view of sexuality is that people express their sexuality with others. For some, all the people they express their sexuality with are of their own sex, for others all of the people they express their sexuality with are of the opposite sex,** and for yet other people, some are of the same sex and some of the opposite sex. Sexual activity can be described – but people cannot be categorised.
The latter is straight out of Kinsey, of course, and that's the only reference in the index for 'bisexual'.
In talking about how to answer the question, one approach used is to ask about attraction, including..
.. "Who do you think about when you masturbate?"
The answer to these inquiries is often taken to provide the definitive answer to the question. For example, if a man always fantasises about men then he is gay, if he fantasises about women, then he is not. If he fantasises sometimes about men and sometimes about about women then he is bisexual.
That's reasonable – the simplest and best definition of bisexual is 'attraction to more than one gender' after all!
What's rather less reasonable is that I think that is the only other use of 'bisexual' in the main body of the book,*** and the reason that many bisexual callers received a poor service from 'lesbian and gay' helplines then follows:
The influence of gay liberation steers the volunteer towards the view that anyone who admits to sexual feelings for their own sex must be gay. .. volunteers often wish to involve anyone who has a desire for same-sex activity in a gay lifestyle within a gay/lesbian community.
On the plus side, the section on HIV/Aids calls mentions vaginal intercourse – plenty of resources for 'gay men' don't, despite research showing more gay-identified men are sexual in any one year than do BDSM – and that some mixed-sex couples have anal sex.
One sort of call the bisexual helplines did not get, in my experience, in anything like the volume reported here were the 'what's the best pub' calls.. because there's never been a commercial 'bisexual' scene.
There are a pile of issues to consider when answering such questions.. but Google and the steep decline in the number of 'gay pubs' means they're a lot less relevant today.
Interestingly, one example of a caller involved them saying they could "only get away during the lunch-hour, otherwise my husband will find out" – this was decades before same-sex marriage in the UK, so it can only be a (quite possibly bisexual) woman saying that.****
p51. Being a Volunteer
Extensive coverage of selection and training of volunteers, followed by the big 'Should I tell people what to do?' question, also known as 'directive or non-directive?'
As with the bi phonelines, most genuine 'lesbian and gay' ones weren't. It's a contrast with the "you should stop being gay" line that some, often religious-based, 'counselling services' adopt. (Similarly for their abortion 'counselling', where women are invariably told not to have an abortion.)
Another issue is 'Can I answer anybody, or only people like me?' The obvious example is around gender, and here the Edinburgh bisexual line tried to have a woman and a man on duty each shift, whereas only one person was ever on the London helpline at a time, but if a woman specifically requested to speak to another woman, they'd be told the next couple of shifts when that was expected.
p69. Callers and their World
Four issues are talked about. The first is 'Should I tell my parents?' where the b-word doesn't get a mention, or anything about the issues for bisexual people coming out to parents.
Then it's 'What about my marriage and children?' where there are two examples. In the first 'Mike' is having an affair with another man, and his wife is becoming suspicious.. but thinks it's an affair with another woman. In the just over a page dealing with this, the b-word doesn't get a mention, but
bar talk (a good indicator of the temperature of the male gay world) points to the number of marriages 'saved' because the man is able to go off from time to time for 'sexual relief' with another man, or men.
The suggested line of conversation is to ensure Mike's "recognition" that he cannot "exploit" the two people he's in a relationship with, so has three options: leave her for him; "working through the issues" with her and "coming to a new understanding of the nature of their marriage"; or "suppressing his feelings" for him and ending the affair.
In the other, 'Julia' has slowly come to realise she has an emotional relationship with another woman she met at a women's health group that she goes to partly because her husband is having affairs with other women. He then accuses her of having an affair with the woman, goes off to a mistress and starts custody proceedings over their son that he is likely to win thanks to the lesbian issue!
Here, the helpline has to deal with its own anger at the injustice, but also supports both women. Again, there's no use of the b-word.
The other issues are 'Should I be faithful to my lover?' and 'Will I fit into the gay world?' – in what's now another look back at the past, in the main population centre of that typical region mentioned earlier, there are said to be four 'gay pubs' (one almost exclusively lesbian, one 'current gay scene look'), two 'gay clubs' (and a struggling straight club that has a 'gay night'), and at least a handful of non-commercial social groups. Each of the four larger towns in the region also has one gay pub, and two have their own social groups.
There is also at least one town with a specialist youth group, where "everyone" – the thirty to forty so under 21***** and the three older organisers – "was gay".
p91. The More Difficult Problems
Repeat callers who stay stuck, legal and medical issues, professional help (i.e. support) for volunteers, and..
'How do I meet other transvestites?'
After spending several paragraphs reminding readers of Kinsey's 1948 finding that 37% of men they interviewed had had sexual contact with another man leading to orgasm, and mentioning the 5% that were "largely or exclusively gay", it doesn't say anything about the other 32%. If only there were a word to describe the sexuality of people who are sexual with more than one gender…
Although the vast majority of those who declare themselves to be transvestites claim to be heterosexual, and although many of them claim to be disgusted by anything to do with gay sex, nonetheless they form a sizeable proportion – anything from 5 per cent to 20 per cent – of calls to gay helplines.
There's also a section on sex between callers and volunteers, with the fascinating comment that only one helpline was known to say that was ok. (Indeed, it almost sounds like it was actively encouraged!) Frustratingly, it's not named, and it also looks like it had closed by the time the book was written.
p111. Improving Helplines
"What functions do helplines have?" is given five answers:
- To be a source of information
- To be a neighbour
- To be an entry point to a new world
- To provide counselling and therapy
- To provide a focus for campaigning for equal rights
In each, it suggests, the helpline is acting as the interpreter of one world – the gay/lesbian one – and is "often doing so through the eyes of the political activist".
That is, I suspect, probably the reason the number of calls to LGB phonelines dropped dramatically from the start of the Century, because when the book asks..
"Who else could provide these services?"
.. the web made it much easier for anyone to publish their interpretations and Google took over as the signposter.
The suggestion is that a good helpline is one
- which takes its work seriously, but which never allows its volunteers to become bored – or boring
- which is clear about why it wants to provide the service it offers, while never allowing its volunteers to thrust services down callers' throats
- where procedures are monitored in order to change and improve the service, but where volunteers do not find the monitoring intrusive because it is carried out sensitively and its purpose is agreed in advance
- where the volunteers enjoy each other's company, without allowing the helpline to become their only social service.
In contrast, "a helpline is not discharging its responsibility to the community properly if it" fails to operate as advertised / has untrained or unassessed volunteers / fails to update its information files.
Based on those, I would say – and as I volunteered with one for years, I am biased – that the UK bisexual phonelines were good:
- The only boring period was towards the end, when there were hardly any calls. Getting to talk anonymously to people about sexuality is fascinating!
- We were also clear about why we existed, and reports of the bi-erasure – 'you're the only one / gay really' – reported from people who'd called other lines like the London Lesbian & Gay Switchboard reinforced that
- The London phoneline had regular meetings to discuss such issues and the monitoring was a mix of the simple – noting things like presented gender and issues raised, then asking at the end of calls about age and rough location, if those hadn't already been mentioned
- Those meetings also confirmed that we got on, plus the geographic spread of people's homes meant it was never anyone's only community.
Looking at the other side, the main problems with missed shifts were technical issues – that expensive box or BT messing something up. If someone knew they couldn't do a shift they were scheduled to do, it was easy to call someone else to cover it. There was initial and continuing training, and we were also able to rely on the information in Bifrost and Bi Community News.
The birth, life (and death?) of helplines
"Helplines come into being because people with idealism, vision and a desire to care see an issue which needs attention."
"Helplines continue .. because the issue .. has not gone away": more people join in, and the calls keep coming.
"Helplines consolidate" including by developing a statement of purpose and monitoring of the service.
"Helplines improve when volunteers come in contact with people who renew the vision, who have new and fresh idealism and have a desire to help more people and help them more effectively" (and not necessarily as new volunteers).
"Helplines develop when they have the enthusiastic support of the community they seek to serve."
What the book, I think, failed to accurately predict is the reason why many of them, including the bisexual ones, closed.
It gave three circumstances where it might happen:
- When society deals properly with the issue
- When the community it serves stops appreciating it – with the suggestion that would be because it didn't do enough to promote itself
- When the environment becomes so hostile
.. and then had two pages reminding readers that the first didn't seem very likely, but the third one was more so, thanks to Aids, Section 28, and Labour being as bad as the Tories ("the Labour Front Bench 'forgot' to oppose clause 28 until pressure from outside forced them to change their minds").
p129. Notes / index etc
You can tell how dedicated the book is to covering 'lesbian and gay' issues from a 'lesbian and gay' perspective by the way that the index starts by saying..
Note: the words advice, gay, heterosexual, identity, information, lesbian, sexual are used throughout the book, and therefore are indexed only when a particular use requires it.
.. whereas 'bisexual' is only in the index once, and the b-word is not used much more often in the book itself. I think I've quoted every single use of it.
By 1995, National Friend hade 31 local 'Friend' or 'Gay Switchboard' groups as members. In 1998, a grant from the National Lottery Charities Board enabled a Birmingham office base and the employment of two members of staff to deal with administration, publicity and fundraising.
Five years later, the charity was closed. My guess is a combination of not being able to maintain the funding and a drop in membership due to a drop in the demand for telephone counselling was the cause.
What caused that was a combination of the first circumstance mentioned earlier coming to pass – see the changes in the British Social Attitudes surveys towards same-sex relationships – and the enormous success of the "World Wide Web", invented just a few years after the book was written.
* They described it as "gay and bisexual lifestyles" but it was gay and bisexual men's sex lives that were the primary focus
** Yes, the whole book is very binary when it comes to sex and gender identity.
*** I can spot two more uses in the footnotes: one referencing a government health service update – The proportion of those newly-reported HIV who are known to be gay or bisexual men has declined from 73 per-cent to 50 per-cent between mid-1987 and mid-1988" – and one the title of an article in the Social Work journal – 'Groups for the wives of gay and bisexual men'.
**** It's also a reminder that until the Licensing Act 1988, pubs in England and Wales were not generally allowed to open between 3:00pm and 5:30pm. It extended permissible opening hours to 11am to 11pm.
***** Presumably it's not a coincidence that that was then the age of consent for any male-male sexual activity in England and Wles.