How Can We Help You? – Information, Advice & Counselling for Gay Men & Lesbians (1989)

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.

Assessing quality

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.

The instructions for the London Bisexual Helpline magic box

See the article on the history of bisexual phonelines in the UK for more details, but from its start in 1987 until 1995, when I think it became unviable to repair, the London Bisexual Helpline used a call-diverter box.

Here are the instructions on how to use it that people doing shifts were given…


London Bisexual Helpline

Operation of the call diverter

The call diverter uses two phone numbers:

Line 1   081-569 7500     The helpline
Line 2   081-569 9877     The private line

The public call in on line 1. If the diverter is switched off, the caller will hear a recorded message explaining when the helpline operates, and giving some details of the London groups. If the diverter is switched on, the call is transferred to the volunteer who is on duty.

To switch the diverter on, call the private line (line 2). The phone will ring for about 40 seconds;* when it is answered you will hear a computerised voice saying, "New number please". When this message finishes wait a couple of seconds, then press

    16 10 ___**

where ___ is your two-digit location code.

After you have pressed 16, you will hear the message, "Divert off." After you have entered your location code you will hear the message, "Your diversion number is xxx. Divert On." Here xxx is your home phone number.*** Wait for this message to finish before hanging up.

Having set up the diverter, please do not try calling 081-569 7500 yourself to check if the diverter is working correctly. If it is, this will lock up the system!**** Get another phoneliner or a friend to call instead.

To switch the diverter off, call the private line again. This time you will hear the message, "Please hold, your call is being connected" Wait a few seconds and then press 16. You will hear the message, "Divert off."

When you receive a diverted call there is a delay of about four seconds between your phone ringing and the caller being connected. If you pick up the receiver during these four seconds, you will hear a faint click when the call is actually connected.

The call diversion system often results in a poor quality line, so it is a good idea to speak loudly.

These instructions assume you have a tone phone (i.e. a phone which 'bleeps' rather than clicks as you dial). If you don't have a tone phone, you will need a tone pad in order to operate the diverter. The helpline administrator can get you a tone pad if required.

If you have problems switching the diverter on or off, it's possible that you are pressing the digits too quickly, or that you are starting to dial too soon after one of the recorded messages. Any helpliner can switch the diverter on or off for anyone else, so if you cannot get the diverter to work, someone else may be able to help. The call diverter is in Ian Saxton's home; if no one else can help, phone him on 081-568 xxxx.


* It was this long in order to discourage people who called it by accident or otherwise – most of them would have given up waiting long before the end of 40 seconds.

** Looking at them now, clearly the '16' 'divert off' code wasn't actually necessary for the helpline's usage, when the diversion would already be off at the start of a shift. But for other users who'd bought one and who wanted to switch from diverting to number A rather than to number B, it would have been necessary and so would have been in the box's instructions.. to be faithfully copied here.

*** So clearly '10 nn' was the code to say 'divert to the number that's nn-th in the saved list of numbers, but how long that list was (looking at a list of volunteers and the codes for their home phones, it's at least 18) and which of the 11..15 codes you used to set up that list and what the other codes did – delete one of the numbers? read them out for checking? – I never knew.

**** I'd have thought you just got a busy tone, but I never dared try it!

AIDS Spectre for Women: The Bisexual Man (New York Times 1987)

A three line history of bisexual men in the news:

1987 – There are "7 to 10 million" bisexual men in the USA

2005 – "Straight, Gay or Lying? Bisexuality Revisited"

2020 – .. we've looked again at that study, and bisexual men do exist!

What's particularly interesting about the first one is that at least three of the men quoted – Richard Isay, Bruce Voeller, and Laud Humphreys – were all married to women for years, with all having children with their wives. Clearly, they were all bisexual by behaviour and to at least some degree by attraction, before deciding to identify as gay.

What won't be surprising to anyone who was a bisexual man in the 1980s is the 'bisexual men give women Aids' angle…


3rd April 1987

AIDS SPECTER FOR WOMEN: THE BISEXUAL MAN

Some Think They Can Tell
Truth After 16 Years
7 to 10 Million Men
Several Categories of Behavior
Reluctance to Reveal the Past
A Few Are Changing Their Ways

By JON NORDHEIMER, SPECIAL TO THE NEW YORK TIMES

Seven years ago a Miami office worker had an affair with a bisexual man. She recalls that his confusion about sexual orientation was one of the things that made her feel tender toward him.

Now she wonders if she should get a blood test for the AIDS virus.

Women today increasingly find their thoughts turning to past and present lovers, asking themselves if anyone with whom they were intimate might have a bisexual history. Unlike the Miami office worker, many will be unable to say for certain.

It is a new anxiety, some of it unfounded, slipping into the lives of women as they measure the degree of risk they face from the deadly acquired immune deficiency syndrome. While bisexuals who are exposed during sexual relations with other men are one bridge on which the AIDS virus can cross from the high-risk homosexual population to infect heterosexual women, the greatest threat comes from intravenous drug users. Only about 4 percent of diagnosed AIDS cases are thought to have been transmitted through heterosexual intercourse, and fewer than one in 10 of those appear to involve bisexual men, according to a New York study.

But numbers offer little consolation to the individual woman who fears that one miscalculation could be fatal, especially a middle-class woman who thinks the chance of contact with a drug addict using contaminated needles is remote. For this kind of woman, experts say, the figure of the male bisexual, cloaked in myth and his own secretiveness, has become the bogyman of the late 1980's, casting a chill on past sexual encounters and prospective ones.

She might also be distressed to learn that bisexuals are often secretive and complex men who, experts say, probably would not acknowledge homosexual activity even if questioned about it. Indeed, some cannot even admit such behavior to themselves.

"Homosexuals have been out of the closet a long time but bisexuals have not," said Dr. Theresa Crenshaw, president of the 5,000-member American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists. "Straight women are going to discover some very unpleasant news about some men they have known."

It is a particularly acute worry for women in such areas as New York, Miami and San Francisco, which have high numbers of AIDS cases. In New York, for example, it is estimated that as many as 500,000 people, mostly men, may already be infected with the AIDS virus but as yet free from symptoms of the disease. This contrasts with the 33,000 confirmed AIDS cases in the nation, still overwhelmingly confined to homosexual men and drug abusers.

Some Think They Can Tell

Some experts feel the threat is exaggerated and doubt that male bisexuals will be a vector of widespread infection among women.

Those relatively few bisexuals willing to discuss their private lives now fear they "will become scapegoated as carriers of the plague," according to David Lourea,* executive director of Bisexual Counseling Services of San Francisco, a support group. "The danger is in telling women to avoid bisexual men and give them the impression they are safe with straight guys who may be just as risky now because they are secret IV drug users."

Still, the fear about bisexuals persists, and women are left to their own resources to ferret out a man's sexual history.

"If the guy won't tell me I could only guess," said the Miami office worker. Her solution: no sex with any man until she is confident of her safety. But "even then the guy could be a good liar," she noted.

Some women believe they can recognize bisexual men. "I don't care how much they want to cover it up, their little effeminate ways tip you off," said another Miami woman, Isis Gradaille. This view is disputed, however, and many bisexuals may seem very masculine to women they attract.

Truth After 16 Years

One therapist tells the story of a New Jersey accountant, 16 years married, who for years sought out men in public toilets and truck stops without a clue to his wife and daughter. When his wife discovered the truth five years ago, the therapist recounted, her reaction was: "You're not a man!" Despite a deep sense of humiliation, however, she continued to have sexual relations with him, tolerating the nights he came home late.

But there was something ultimately more devastating than humiliation: Fear of AIDS took hold, and two years ago, according to the therapist, she ordered her husband out. Experts believe that many women married to such men are indeed at great risk of AIDS because of repeated contact with someone who may have many sexual partners in a high-risk population. But there is less agreement on the extent of the AIDS danger that bisexuals pose to women in general.

The uncertainty stems in part from the difficulty in defining bisexuals and their patterns of behavior. Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey, the researcher whose 1948 survey "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male" is still the best broad-based examination of the subject, admitted confusion on 'delimiting' bisexuality.

7 to 10 Million Men

"There are not many bisexual men who can function effectively with a wide number of female partners," said Richard A. Isay, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan. "Most bisexuals are just married men who are gay."

But some other behaviorists and clinicians challenge that contention. "There are many men out there who are very active with both men and women," asserted Dr. Fritz Klein, a California authority on bisexuality.

As for numbers, Dr. Bruce Voeller, president of the Mariposa Foundation, a sexuality research and educational group in Los Angeles, said those men who fall within the range of active bisexuality are more numerous than most people would expect.

While no reliable national survey exists to update the 40-year old Kinsey data, Dr. Voeller estimated that 7 million to 10 million men today, out of the 96.5 million over the age of 12, could be described as bisexual for some extended period in their lives, about twice the number thought to be exclusively homosexual.

"The numbers on bisexuals have always been a problem," conceded Dr. June Reinisch, director of the Kinsey Institute, part of Indiana University at Bloomington, Ind. "But basically we don't believe that the years of sexual liberation and openness in American society have changed them much. You can't train or influence people on which gender to fall in love with. That's set from early on in life."

Several Categories of Behavior

Contemporary researchers suggest that most bisexuals fit into five categories of behavior. The largest group are married men, like the New Jersey accountant, who lead clandestine homosexual lives and rarely if ever have sexual relations with women other than their wives.

A second group includes openly bisexual men who are promiscuous only in their homosexual orientation and interact with women in a sporadic, serial manner, returning to the company of men when a relationship with a woman ends.

There are those men unsettled by identity confusion who, in the words of one expert, "jump here and there and back again."

Researchers think a fourth group, young men who experiment with homosexuality in college or some other environment where it is tolerated or easy to hide, is shrinking as AIDS fears rise.

Dr. Laud Humphreys, a Los Angeles psychotherapist who wrote "Tearoom Trade," an examination of homosexual and bisexual behavior, describes the fifth category as "ambisexuals," a small but "dangerous" group of men who have very frequent sexual contact with both men and women.

"Basically they don't care if a partner is a man or a woman as long as that person is good-looking and sexually active," Dr. Humphreys said. "I consider this group the most dangerous in the cross-infection of AIDS because these men are likely to be drug-abusers as well, overlapping their high-risk behavior." He includes male prostitutes in this category, though they often express loathing for their clients and may be heterosexual by preference.

Reluctance to Reveal the Past

Stuart, a San Francisco writer, closely fits Dr. Humphreys's description of ambisexual. "As a teenager I considered myself a latent homosexual because I fantasized about men and women as long as I can remember," he said in a telephone interview. "When my first wife and I back in the 1970's decided to have an open marriage, we formed a menage a trois with one of her professors in Philadelphia.

"I was scared my first homosexual experience would turn me off to women but that hasn't happened. I still feel a sexual need for them, although at the moment I live with a man." One point on which all experts agreed, in a series of interviews, was that most bisexuals would be extremely reluctant to reveal their sexual history to someone with whom they did not hold a long and trusting relationship.

"If anything, AIDS will drive bisexual men deeper into the closet," said Pepper Schwartz, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Washington who co-wrote "American Couples," a study of heterosexual and homosexual relationships. These men realize that "even women who consider themselves very liberal will not have sex with a bisexual since she will consider him a greater risk for infection."

Married men who for years have frequented homosexual hangouts may still regard themselves as heterosexual and, if asked by a woman, would vehemently deny high-risk behavior, according to several therapists.

"This is a group most likely to spread AIDS by denying this history to a woman," said James Mahon, a psychologist who co-founded the Center for Identity Development in Upper Montclair, N.J., a counseling service for homosexuals and bisexuals.

"The need they feel to protect their sense of self is so strong," he said, "plus they feel they have so much to lose if their behavior is found out, that they don't even recognize their behavior as homosexual in character, as strange as that may sound. This is carried to a point where they may not practice safe sex because that would be an admission that it is high-risk, homosexual behavior."

Dr. Jane Pitt, a faculty member at Babies Hospital of the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York, said she had heard of cases in which infants born with AIDS gave the first clue that the mother had been infected through a bisexual husband. "The illness of the baby alerted everyone and gave the death knell to the whole family in the most outrageous way," the physician said.

Therapists report that a few years ago there was a surge in bisexuals seeking professional help to "convert" their sexual orientation to heterosexuality, a highly controversial therapeutic goal that is considered without merit if the patient's basic makeup, consciously or subconsciously, is homosexual. But the trend dropped off by 1986. "Most were driven by the fear of AIDS," said Dr. Crenshaw of San Diego. "Now they see heterosexuals are not free from risk."

A Few Are Changing Their Ways

Still, it is apparent that some bisexual and homosexual men are seeking alternatives. "Gay and bisexual men are settling down with women and marrying them in greater numbers than ever before," said Dr. David McWhirter, a San Diego psychiatrist who is a co-author of "The Male Couple," a study of monogamous homosexuals.

Michael Shernoff, a therapist working with homosexual men in Manhattan, said he has detected the same trend. "It appears to be happening with gay men who have been very comfortable with a gay identity for a long time but gradually discover a strong attraction for women," he said. Dr. Voeller of the Mariposa Foundation reported similar observations. "It's a recent phenomenon of the gay movement," he said. "I see it even among some leaders of the gay movement who are secretive about their relations with women because they believe they will be censured by gays."

He said it was unknown, however, whether such secretiveness extended to obscuring a homosexual background, or whether the men submitted to blood tests to assure that they were free of the AIDS virus and unlikely to pass it on to the women they were taking up with.


* Previously featured in the Bay Area Reporter on first US national bisexual conference article.

Square Peg 17 on 5th National Conference on Bisexuality (BiCon 5)

Following their article on bisexuality in Square Peg 14, issue 17 (published some time after June 1987*) had something in its news pages on the 5th National Conference on Bisexuality** that was to happen in Edinburgh during mid-October.

Note the line welcoming "feminist transsexuals to women-only workshops"!

Alongside assorted art, Square Peg 17 also had one of the most erotic short stories I've ever read, Chrissy by Fi Craig; a look at the bathrooms of six LGBT people; a look at the films of Barbara Hammer and the recently deceased Curt McDowell; some photos of sex involving several women ("In issue 11 we talked about it, in issue 14 we read about it, in this issue we deliver it"); Manchester as England's second city; some photos of sex involving two or more men (probably); a look at pre-Aids gay porn stories; homo-eroticism in Italian cannibal movies; an interview with Roz Kaveney; a look at Aids in the USA; a Prague travelogue, then behind the 'Iron Curtain'.

Square Peg 17 cover

Double page spread of news pieces in Square Peg 17

image of text in article


Bisexuality Conference

"WE'RE NOT PLAYING AT OUR SEXUALITY; we can't trim it neatly to conform to heterosexual or homosexual stereotype and nor do we want to."

The 5th National Conference on Bisexuality offers bisexuals and their allies a weekend of discussion; support and fun; and promises workshops on such subjects as safe sex; positive pornography; heterosexuality, power and privilege; lesbian and gay attitudes to bisexuals; and SM. The women in the organising group welcome feminist transsexuals to women-only workshops. The conference is to be held at 60, The Pleasance, Edinburgh*** on October 16 to 18. For further information phone the Bisexual Phoneline**** (031-557 3620) on Thursdays 7:30-9:30pm, or write to: Edinburgh Bisexual Group, 58a Broughton Street, Edinburgh EH1 3SA.


* A THT ad elsewhere in it mentions the level of HIV infection as of June 1987.

** BiCon 5, but this was two years before the first one to be called 'BiCon'.

*** Owned by the University of Edinburgh, the Pleasance was also the venue for 1985's 'Bisexuality and the Politics of Sex' conference – what we'd now call BiCon 3.

**** The use of 'the' is more evidence that the London Bisexual Helpline started later in 1987.

Square Peg on bisexuality

It looks like two lesbian and gay magazines have used the title Square Peg. The later one is American, founded by long-time lesbian activist Jeanne Córdova, and ran from 1992-94.

The original was British, started in 1983 and if it wasn't unique, I've never seen anything else like it. A later subtitle for it was '(the journal for contemporary perverts)' – a queer art and politics and art quarterly magazine. On heavy glossy paper. In a square format.

In one of the few mentions I can find of it, 1980s gay activist Colin Clews says "In effect, it was probably one of the first publications to segment the gay and lesbian market by any measure other than gender" – and that's probably why it was so good. The collective that ran it were mixed gender, and the content was far more gender balanced than any other lesbian or gay publication.

The book What is She Like: Lesbian Identities from the 1950s to the 1990s includes it in a list of lesbian publications* that disappeared in the 1980s. That last bit's not true – its last issue was in 1991 – but the comment that "It was alternative, upfront, sexual, mixed, arty, offering fiction and plenty of art work. At the time, Square Peg was decidedly innovative, and it led the way for journals with stronger design input, higher production quality and higher prices" is spot on.

The design aesthetic didn't always make it the easiest thing to read, but the actual content was all highly readable.

Anyway, somehow it became known as somewhere that – in comparison to the rest of the lesbian and gay media – was bi friendly. Maybe that was because of the mixed gender collective, but it confused them…

"bisexuality has never been mentioned or featured in Square Peg"

So, from Square Peg issue 14 (late summer 1986):


Bisexuality
Coming out of the closet

Kinsey: 'There remains among males and females a considerable number of persons who include homosexual and heterosexual responses and attitudes… these are called bisexual.'
The only statement Kinsey made about bisexuality. He thought the common reader wouldn't know the meaning of the word.

City Limits** on Square Peg: '.. where bisexuality isn't a dirty word' – bisexuality has never been mentioned or featured in Square Peg.

Parents' Music Resource Centre,*** Washington D.C.: 'Many of today's rock stars have exceeded the bounds of decency by singing about incest, sadomasochism, bisexuality, bondage, even necrophilia..'

Kate Millett (author of Flying): 'Homosexuality was invented by a straight world dealing with its own bisexuality.'

If the straight world has the failed to deal with its own invention, consider its record in dealing with bisexuality, trivialising and usually ignoring it. Repeatedly, bisexuality has been ignored by sexologists and psychologists, at best being included with homosexual studies. Consequently, there is very little written on the subject and a lot of what is written is a mishmash of questionable theories and outlandish statements:

'Bisexuals reject stereotyped sex roles and attributes' (Charlotte Woolf)
'Everybody is bisexual really' (Ken Livingstone)

This information and confusion is not very far from popular opinion on bisexuality and supports the many myths that surround it.

There are many 'bisexualities' as there are people calling themselves bisexual. As well, there are large numbers of people both gay, lesbian and straight who, while not calling themselves bisexual, nevertheless have had closet relations with members of the other or same sex respectively; A married man who cottages, would he be considered bisexual, or is it more important how he labels himself? If your fantasies are about the opposite sex sometimes, does that you make you a bisexual, rather than lesbian or gay? Is bisexuality simply a matter of what you call yourself?

'When I started going to the group Sexual Fringe – a group which was known for its radical line on 'deviant' sexualities – some members of the group were quite hostile to the bisexual people who went along to the meetings; why is it, I wondered, that some lesbians and gays find bisexuality so threatening? After the first few meetings of Sexual Fringe realised that there were more than just a few people who, while calling themselves 'gay' or 'lesbian' actually had sexual partners of the opposite sex.'
(bisexual woman)

Bisexuals: Politics and Myths

So long as this society encourages one form of 'normal' sexuality and punishes bisexuality, homo- sexuality and other 'deviant' sexualities, then bisexuality cannot be seen as a 'choice'. Both heterosexuals and homosexuals feel alienated when bisexuals 'come out'. The majority of heterosexuals will still see gays and lesbians as something alien. Bisexuality undermines their sexual sensibility by confronting them with possibility of same sex and opposite sex contacts. Not all bisexuals are in a 'transition' stage between heterosexuality and homosexuality – yet such an assumption, that we are 'really gay' or 'really straight', is common. This is a blatant dismissal of ongoing experiences that are extremely powerful, and which have warranted many people to 'come out' as bisexual.

'I had been calling myself gay for about five years, yet for some time I had been having closeted relations with women. I always told myself that I'd eventually 'grow out of it'. Ever heard that before? I realised I was lying to myself – and my friends for that matter – by calling myself gay. Bisexuality, to me now, is an ongoing process of discovery, which constantly confronts me… every day.'
(bisexual man)
 

Some bisexuals do 'come out', finding the alternative, of staying in the closet, intolerable. Coming out releases the constraints that they themselves and others have placed on them. To have to be purely heterosexual or purely homosexual feels as though only half of your being is allowed to exist; the other half must remain hidden.

Bisexuals coming out after having been heterosexual will probably not find themselves taken seriously (by heterosexuals) and their bisexuality will be seen as 'just a phase'. In the case of lesbians and gay men who come out as bisexual, they are coming out for the second time and it is, in many ways, harder. They will be seen as going straight and will risk being ostracised by their lesbian/gay friends.

'One boyfriend told me that I was probably straight, another told me I was definitely gay. They couldn't acknowledge my bisexuality, but it is their problem, not mine.'
(bisexual man)
 

It is important that people come out as bisexual, but for individuals their situation may make this very difficult. Avoid the urgent cries of 'come out from those already out and secure in their own safe communities. Come out at your own pace, seeking support should you need it.

'For me, bisexuality is a description I have used reluctantly or not at all, though I'm more willing to admit to having had the occasional relationship with a man. It's much easier to do that 'as a lesbian' – somehow, just even calling yourself 'bisexual' undermines your credibility…'
(bisexual woman)

Bisexuality, Sex and Myth

'When I'm having a relationship with a woman, there's more of a necessity to explore our sexuality, to talk about what pleases us and find ways of physically expressing love. In relationships with men, I've found it's often more difficult to achieve the equality of sexual satisfaction because the necessity to experiment is not there for one partner who can easily satisfy their own desire through penetration, and communication can be more confused as heterosexual stereotypes need to be rejected.'
(bisexual woman)
 

Bisexuality challenges the sexual classification system and questions fundamental notions about sexuality and gender. Within relationships with either sex bisexuals will be continually redefining their sexual identity while society will treat the two relationships vastly differently, Bisexuals can and up trying to combine two lifestyles. two erotic preferences in one way of another. Sexual orientation is subject to profound change and is constantly created and recreated every day as sexual and social experiences develop. Bisexuals have to make specific sexual choices about how and with whom they will express their sexuality.

'Sex with men is far more relaxed and anything goes, yet with women some things could be construed as sexist, rather than sexual enjoyment.'
(bisexual man)
 

Bisexuals vary from person to person, gender to gender. But in most studies of bisexuality the experiences drawn on have traditionally been those of heterosexuals who became bisexual in writing this article the people we talked to had mostly been lesbian or gay, and had later come out as bisexual They all related common experiences of coming out of their lesbian or gay 'closet'.

'Two of my co-workers were discussing a mutual friend whom they had considered had fallen from 'lesbian-feminist' grace. All three women had identified as radical lesbian separatists. The friend apparently had, after some years in their community, begun an affair with a man. The reaction of these two women was a mixture of self-righteous disgust and horror. "How could she do it!" "Well, we don't see her anymore… and it's just as well" I felt rather sorry this woman, who probably needed more support from her friends at this point her life than she ever had before, especially having been part of such of such a closed community as this. Anyway, their attitude irritated me and I said to them: "Perhaps the people who react most violently against someone like you friend are those who fear the possibility of the same thing happening to them." Half expecting an ideological rebuke, I was surprised that my comment completely silenced them.'
(lesbian)
 

Yet all the bisexual people we spoke to – the ones who had first been lesbian or gay – considered they had a definite place in the lesbian and gay community and had experienced a common oppression. The similarities with lesbians and gays, and with their struggle for an end to oppression are many.

While bisexuals differ in their attraction to the opposite sex, they share with lesbians and gays their attraction to the same sex. Disharmony between bisexuals and gay people is against everybody's interest, and ultimately is destructive of their common struggle. Yet most had already hoard the usual put-downs aimed at bisexuals from their gay and lesbian friends and now had to face up to a new type of discrimination all over again.

In relationships, if men don't like me it doesn't matter so much, but with women it's more important.
(bisexual woman)
 

Bisexuality is nowhere in this society dealt with as a potentially open, valid and acceptable option My gay friends are annoyed that I'm 'half-straight' and my straight friends are waiting for me to 'come to my senses'. Talk about alienation!
(from the Hite Report)
 

Bisexuals have no focal community (although bisexual groups exist around the country – see list below) in the way that lesbians and gays do: no pubs, clubs, venues or even special interest groups (Bisexual clones?**** SM bisexuals?***** Bisexual skinheads? Radical feminist bisexuals?) Everyone who uses lesbian/gay venues or goes to lesbian or gay groups are assured that everyone else is lesbian or gay too. Likewise the same can be said for heterosexuals who have their own communities and identity. But there is no bisexual community, no bisexual subculture. Bisexuals are forced to go either to gay or straight clubs and pubs where their identity will be taken for granted as gay or straight.

Bisexuals are people who eroticise both women and men but, as a label, it cannot say anything about the morality of politics of the individual.

'Bisexuality for me could never just be a question of personal choice; it is always a question of politics. My politics start with being honest about what I desire, instead of trying to make my desires conform to what I think I ought to want. That necessarily involves having to think and act on different levels – to my parents or employers, or to a homophobic society, I am a lesbian. At the moment it is only within lesbian/gay contexts (and only a few of them) that I can talk about how contradictory my sexuality is.'

Resources and further reading:
Sex, Power and Pleasure, Mariana Valverde (Canadian Women's Press, 1985)
Bisexuality: A Study, Charlotte Woolf
Hite Report on Male Sexuality, Shere Hite

Contacts:
London Bisexual Group – Mondays 8:30pm Fallen Angel, Graham Street N1   Tel: David (his then home number)
London Bisexual Women's Drop-in: Alternate Wednesdays 7:30pm, London Friend 33a Seven Sisters Road N7.   Tel: Sara (.. and presumably hers)
Bi-Monthly Magazine – BM Bi, London WC1N 3XX
Radical Gay/Lesbian Identified Bisexual Network Pink Dandelion (his home) Brighton BN2 3ET
Edinburgh Bisexual Group, Thursdays at LGC, 58a Broughton Street   Tel: Kate (her then home number)
Tyneside Bisexual Group, Tel: Simon (.. and presumably his***** *)


Many articles in Square Peg were uncredited and this was one such. Other material in the issue included:

Poetry in Motion – photographs by Juanito Wadhwani [in addition to the one on the cover]
Contexts – assorted news and short pieces
In Defence of [the then-banned rape revenge film] 'I Spit On Your Grave' – When the tables are turned..
Half-Hearted – Donna Deitch (just about) talks to SP about the making of 'Desert Hearts' [they weren't impressed by her not being more out]
Even Louder – New photo-graffiti by Jill Posener [about her second photo book, following on from Spray It Loud]
Parting Glances – An interview with film-make Bill Sherwood
Dominatrix, Virgina Intata – Diamanda Galás talks to Alan Reid about life, love and death
Photgyne – Photographs by Cheryl Newman
Lesbian Pornography – Love it or hate it, it's here!
Bisexuality = Coming out of the closet
Making a Statement – Emmanuel Cooper discusses the work of Adam Jones and Nick Lowe
Travelogue – Lino-prints by Kathy Ludlow
Raving Reviews
Concerning the Centenary & Eccentricities of Ronald Firbank – A re-evaluation of the work of one of England's underestimated talents [two years before the publication of Alan Hollinghurst's novel The Swimming Pool Library, which featured his life and work as a major plot element]
Letters.

A combination of buying them at the time, getting a handful of back issues from before I found out about it, and someone else's patchy collection filling two of the three holes means that I have the set.. with the exception of the issue with probably the largest print run, #1. (The collective behind it gave away copies at a summer gay festival.)

It stopped publishing in 1991 not long after I'd bought a lifetime subscription for £100 – basically a fortnight's benefit money – at a time when the cover price was £3. There are some times where I'm annoyed at publishers who've done that, but this was not a commercial venture and the magazine was so good, I just hope the money was useful.

I also got several t-shirts from them which still get worn – the one with 1970s heart-trob David Cassidy with a whip in his mouth that's made multiple appearances at BiCon is one of theirs.

I'd love a copy of the first issue…


* If you can think of another mixed gender magazine that someone with a very definite lesbian perspective would say that about without any hedging, do say.

** London listings weekly magazine City Limits was founded in 1981 by a group of striking Time Out workers following that publication's move from operating as a co-operative. As you can imagine, it kept the radical left politics that Time Out had had when it started in the 1960s.

A couple of years later, the wonderful 'fat is a feminist issue' singing group, Spare Tyre, had a song that went "Spare Rib and City Limits keep us on the straight and nar-row! We don't know where we'd be without their feminist loving care-oh.." Interestingly, between the version that's online (with a couple of mistakes in the lyrics) and the mid-80s, one of the group came out which meant changing a line to 'only (name) is gay'.

*** This then new bunch of powerful women objected to lyrics in a host of songs. They're responsible for the introduction of the "Parental Guidance: Explicit Lyrics" labels on records that have been with us ever since.

**** This makes me feel old, but I may have to explain what a 'clone' is in this context! Think Freddie Mercury in his 'short hair and a moustache' phase in leather – a prefect demonstration of a bisexual clone! – or the Tom of Finland leather men. It was a hugely popular look on the gay scene at the time.

***** SM Bisexuals came into existence a few years later

***** * This number was an 0632 Newcastle one. In the late 80s, the codes for Newcastle were changed, and since then 0632 (and, following PhONEday, 01632) have been only used for 'fictitious numbers'. Not really existing.. it's the perfect metaphor for society's view of bisexuality, isn't it?

UK bisexual phonelines

One of the sessions at BiCon 2003 was "Number unobtainable – what next for bisexual phonelines?"

This is an expanded version of that session, now with added bisexual phoneline.. that I forgot about until after first publishing it, ahem.

At that point, there had been five six 'bisexual phonelines' in the UK and none of them were operating any more.

All phonelines have some factors in common. Some callers have had the number for years before deciding to actually call it; others have only just noticed it. The caller choses when to call, can hang-up at any time, and may never call again.

You will wish that some people who do call again wouldn't – learning to spot a repeat caller you can do nothing to help and is blocking the line for other people is a very useful skill.

Compared to many other LGBT phonelines, the bisexual phonelines got far fewer abusive calls – possibly because they were never so widely publicised. We also had fewer silent calls, where the caller would say nothing before eventually hanging up (after a minute or two, the person answering the call usually says a little spiel about it being ok not to say anything and to call back at another time – unlike some, the London phoneline didn't have a policy of never hanging up on silent callers, but would do so after giving a gentle warning), and 'wank calls', where the caller is more or less obviously masturbating while on the line.

So what were the six?

1. Do it from home

As part of organising the first meeting of the London Bisexual Group back in September 1981, David Burkle put his home phone number as a contact. Although the group itself soon started renting a mail forwarding address ('BM Bi' at British Monomarks), the phone number stayed fairly widely publicised..

.. and around twenty people a week rang it. Some were straight information calls ("What's happening at the LBG this week?") but most were counselling calls from people who wanted personal assistance. David wrote about the experience in Bisexual Lives and, as he says, "there are several disadvantages in operating a telephone counselling service from home".

By 1987, he'd had enough of doing it this way. Because of how phonelines work – see above – he doubtless continued to get calls, but callers could be 'signposted' to another bisexual phoneline…

2. Do it from an office

In January 1987, the Edinburgh Bisexual Group was meeting at the (then) Lesbian & Gay Centre in Broughton Street on Thursday evenings. The basement room they used had a side room, and once a couple of phones were installed, this became the home for the Edinburgh Bisexual Phoneline.

The advertised hours, two hours on a Thursday evening, were the same as the EBG's. If a call came in, one of the two people 'on duty' would leave the meeting and answer the phone. They planned to have a man and a woman available each Thursday.

Having an office is the classic way for groups with resources to have a phoneline: it's how London's Gay / Lesbian & Gay Switchboard – now just 'Switchboard' – has operated since starting in 1974, for example. They used a room above Housemans, the alternative bookshop in London's Kings Cross area, before moving up the road a bit to their own offices.

Similarly London Friend, venue for the London Bisexual Group from the late 80s until it ceased meeting, runs their phoneline from their basement.

The disadvantages include that you need somewhere, and that usually costs money, sometimes lots of it.

If you're doing this somewhere like London, you can often have people spending an hour travelling to the 'office', doing a shift of two or three hours, then spending an hour going home afterwards.

The advantages include that there's a clear separation between 'phoneline' and 'normal life'. If you have a secure office, you can keep resources and records there. It is also easier to have more than one phone line for your phoneline if you have a single location.

There's a 1997 Bi Community News article from two people then helping organise the Edinburgh phoneline. (The 'Friday' in the last paragraph is almost certainly a typo!)

It stopped operating in early 2000, when the Edinburgh group closed. The Centre had been the Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Centre since BiCon 1994.

3. Do it from home.. via a central number

David organised the London Bisexual Helpline which opened later in 1987 for many years. It had a new number that could be redirected to people's homes. At the start, this was done by an expensive* box – bought from a telecoms shop that was right by Housemans – which was located in someone's flat and could do what was then almost magical…

Callers to the published number got a message that said something like 'Please wait.. connecting..' while it dialled out on a second phone line to one of ten or so numbers that had been programmed into it. When that number answered, the two lines would be effectively connected together.

From the person on duty's perspective, you dialled the box at the start of your shift and then, as it answered, dialled a series of code numbers that said 'Hello, I'm someone who really has the right to do this, and** I'd like you to redirect incoming calls to the nth phone number in your list until told otherwise'. That list was presumably set up by another set of codes that I was never given.

At the end of the shift, you dialled the box again, and gave it the codes for 'stop redirecting calls'. Callers would then get a message from an answerphone that was plugged into the phone line and/or the box.

From the phoneline's perspective, it meant paying for two phone lines (the published number and the number that dialled out), and the occasional repair to the box when it stopped working, but the saving in travel costs – time and money – meant it was worth it.

Training was done by having the new person visit an existing person's home, listening to them dealing with calls for a couple of evenings, then taking calls with them listening. After a few shifts like that, they would almost always be added to the rota.

Every two or so months, usually on a Sunday, everyone working on the phoneline would get together somewhere – the main place I remember was the London Lighthouse (an Aids hospice in Kensington) which had a nice cafe and very comfy chairs and beanbags in its meeting rooms – to discuss calls, the shift rota, and have some continuing training and support. It was an opportunity to spot repeat callers and talk about policies like the 'non-directional' approach the phoneline took: callers wouldn't be told what to do, but we'd explore options with them and leave the final decision about whether to come out or visit a bi group or.. up to them.

Initially operating on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, at some point in the early 90s, Saturday lunchtime was also added for a total of six hours a week.

With the exception of the initial donation, all this was largely unfunded work as usually understood. There were 'bucket rattle' collections at events like BiCon, and the London Bisexual Group did the odd fundraiser too. A trio of anonymous donations around the 9th National Bisexual Conference in 1991 raised an impressive £1,600 which would have been enough to keep the London one going for around four years.

The main exception followed the second (and final?) run of the Health Education Authority's 'hands' ad, the only bit of "bisexual" advertising they ever did. That one included the two bisexual phonelines' numbers and they were willing to fund the London one to extend its service to six days a week for a couple of months.

The HEA's 'hands' ad - close up photo of two middle class men holding hands, with the strapline 'If a married man has an affair, it may not be with a woman'

A combination of their refusal to fund existing work and – I think – the way that the money was officially for England & Wales only meant they wouldn't let the Edinburgh group have any of it, annoyingly. There was enough money for the London line to recruit some additional people, do some additional training, and pay people a few quid per shift during those months.

When the HEA ran their 'torsos' ad (a male and a female torso, both topless, with a strapline of 'Which do you find more attractive? If you're not certain, read on.') they absolutely refused to mention the bisexual phonelines. This was for "undecided" people, not bisexuals! They did provide the number of the (then distinctly biphobic) London Lesbian & Gay Switchboard though…

The HEA's 'torsos' ad, showing a male and female upper body, both topless

 

In 1995, the box either needed an expensive repair or the services available from BT improved to the point that we no longer needed it*** or both.

When I investigated, it turned out that for around than the cost of the second phone line, we could use BT's then brand new 'Smart Divert' service which did what the box did, including charging us for the call 'from' the published number to the actual destination, except instantly and without needing a second phone line, all for a "quarterly fee for the privilege of letting BT charge twice for one call".

It meant that, for example, people could do shifts even if they weren't at home. We could have even, if we'd been prepared to pay the international call fees, redirect calls to almost anywhere in the world.**** The phoneline was one of the first BT customers to use it***** and I had to explain to some BT sales person exactly what to do to find it in the company's extremely long price list.

Overall, the new system was a noticeable improvement and it all went fine, until the point where the person whose flat the phoneline's number went to moved home.

 

What the article doesn't say is that, in common with most of the helplines I talked to, we were already noticing a significant drop in the number of calls because of the increasing popularity of 'the internet', i.e. the web. Instead of getting a handful of calls per shift – the number depending on how long they were more than anything else – it was getting increasingly common to have no calls at all.

Obviously, that made doing shifts somewhat frustrating and made training new people in the way that had worked for over a decade almost impossible.

At some point early in 2003, there was a problem with the 0845 number or the BT line that it redirected to, very probably the latter. I can't remember exactly what it was – BT deciding to charge more for something and not telling us, I think.

In any event, it would have cost us more to have the phoneline continue and, asking around, given the call volume we were getting, the people left doing it decided to close the line. An annual financial cost of around £340 for phone line, smart divert and calls, plus £120 for the 0845 number is one thing when you're getting up to a thousand calls a year; when you're getting closer to fifty, it's another.

I still think it was the right decision, but before the line at my flat was cut off, one young woman left a message on the answerphone there that expressed the reason that it existed. I hope she was able to find help elsewhere.

4. 'We'll do it for you'

.. or, the one I forgot about until earlier today.

The first run of the HEA's 'hands' ad had, in its completely different body text, an invitation to call "the special bisexual helpline" on an 0800 freephone number, open from 4pm to 10pm seven days a week.

This one was run by the same people who ran the National Aids Helpline on a different 0800 number. Just as that had drawn away volunteers from places like the London Lesbian & Gay Switchboard by paying people answering the phone, this paid people like David to do some training on bisexual issues. I think the people answering it primarily came from the NAH staff.

I have no idea how many people called it or what the HEA were charged for running it. Quite a lot, I suspect. In fact, I would be utterly astonished if, in its short life, this didn't cost much more than the total of all the other ones over their entire lives – for the London and Edinburgh ones, that's about thirty years, combined.

The person who ran the NAH around this time came to BiCon a couple of times in the early 90s. He had several amusing stories, including the way that he had to keep explaining to visiting ministers that calls were confidential, so no, they couldn't ever listen to one.

The 'special bisexual phoneline' was phased out after a number of months, but the NAH is still going today, rebranded as the 'Sexual Health Information Line', and ultimately funded by Public Health England. It has kept the same phone number from the 1980s too, although it's likely to change to an 0300 freephone number at some point.

5. Answerphone

In the 1990s, the (mixed) Nottingham Bisexual Group had one of these for a while: a simple answerphone had a long outgoing message that mentioned the bi groups in Nottingham and several other bi resources. The phone number was publicised locally.

The big advantage is that it's extremely simple to set up.

For something more complicated, the Asterisk open source software has made having a phone tree ('press 1 for more about answering Am I bisexual?, press 2 for more about..') on an internet server relatively easy for over a decade. Getting a 'cheap to call' phone number redirect to such a server can be free. Having something like this was talked about in BiCon 2010***** * but as far as I know, no-one's ever actually done it.

6. Like #1, but to get laid

The exception, in more ways than one!

Also at one point in the 1990s, people working on the London Bisexual Phoneline noticed an ad in somewhere like Diva for a "bisexual women's helpline" with a phone number from somewhere near London.

One of the women on the London phoneline called it, and was later able to confirm what was happening: after chatting for a while, the woman on the other end would invite the caller to come and visit them in person at their home for further 'discussions'. They were also able to confirm, having gone along there, that the discussions expected were the horizontal kind…

Obviously this is appallingly unethical behaviour for a phoneline (even if our test caller did enjoy themselves!) and the policies of any worthwhile phoneline will include 'don't arrange dates with callers' as well as issues around confidentiality etc.

The ads disappeared from Diva a while later.


* Several hundred pounds. An anonymous donor covered the cost.

** Update: having found the instruction sheet, there wasn't a PIN and the only protections against random people doing this were a) not publishing the box's private number and b) a forty second wait until it picked up and you could start programming it to do something via pressing the keys on your phone. Fortunately, the way that local calls were charged for in the UK meant that 'wardialing' – dialling endless numbers until an interesting one answered – was never a big thing here, unlike the USA.

*** Sadly, I think the original box was junked when the new system was introduced, because it would have been fascinating to open it up and see how it worked. There must have been an 8-bit CPU in there somewhere! There were strict limits on what you could electrically connect to a BT phoneline, and I did wonder if it was being naughty and efficient or good and rather less so.

**** There were a couple of exceptions, probably due to fraud.

***** I can't remember where I heard about it – probably the online conferencing service cix where someone working at BT may have mentioned it: "In its heyday, CIX was one of the UK's premier online locations for both technical and social interaction" (Wikipedia)

***** * At the same venue as BiCon 2003!