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!

Bisexual Phoneline rings the changes

Originally published in BCN 54: Mar 2002 with additional footnotes added in June 2020.

January [2002] saw the 15th anniversary of the start of the Edinburgh bisexual helpline (RIP). It almost saw the end of the London one.

After over 13 years of letting it use a phone line in his West London flat, Ian Saxton moved to somewhere in Berkshire. The new people were due to move into his old flat the following weekend.

While I am of course incredibly grateful to him for his help over past years – especially when the helpline operated by connecting two phone lines together with an expensive but appallingly unreliable box of tricks that he had to keep kicking – I would also really rather have liked to have had more than two days notice of the move. Oh well.

For almost seven years, we've been operating with a single line. Most times of the week, callers to the helpline get through to an answerphone. Its message tells them to go away… and call back when we're open. At those times, we use a service BT now call 'Smart Divert' — we were one of the first to use it in the UK! — which enables us to divert calls to the helpline's number to (almost) anywhere else in the world, from anywhere in the world.

So volunteers can do shifts anywhere that's convenient and callers don't know the difference. We pay the cost of diverting the call 'from' the flat to wherever the shift is being done plus a quarterly fee for the privilege of letting BT charge twice for one call, but that's less than the previous cost of having two lines. And as the line is only open at evenings and weekends, the diversion call costs are minimal.

Now, with Ian gone, we were in trouble. Especially as I had to remove the helpline's answerphone while he was still there, so for one week callers 'outside hours' only got a ringing tone.

Something had to be done… but what, exactly?

"Very lucky or very poor"

The last time I looked it up, every year around one in ten people moves. And nearly all of them have a phone. So you'd expect it to be easy to move and keep your phone number.

Of course, you'd be wrong. If you want to do so, you either have to be very lucky, or you end up very poor.

Technically, there is no reason whatsoever why we could not have the line into the flat disconnected (we absolutely did not want the new owners to be able to answer 'our' phone number, much less call out on it), add something like the otherwise evil Call Minder – BT's virtual answerphone service – and keep going with Smart Divert.

But they wouldn't do that. Even though BT would make even more money: not only would they get the Call Minder rental money, they'd save on having to provide a physical line. Oh no, the marketing division says we 'have' to have a physical line. It doesn't have to be where they send the bills (and it never has been) but it has to be somewhere. And not just anywhere.

It turns out there were only two ways to keep the helpline's number – which has appeared in innumerable places in the past fourteen years – either find somewhere within the area of its 020 8569 exchange to host it, or pay a fortune (about £500 per year on top of our current phone bill of about £250) for an 'Out of Exchange Number'.

Yet, incredibly, you can't find out where the exchanges' area actually is except by ringing up and asking on an address-by-address basis. ("12 London Road?" "Nope." "How about 34 High Street?" "Nope." etc etc etc) This makes finding a suitable location somewhat difficult, particularly as the time scale for installing a new line means we had about 48 hours to do so. If we had managed it, it'd have cost £120 for that new line.

The alternative was to have a new number, plus Caller Redirect which sounds more impressive than what it is: a message on the old number saying 'we've moved, try this number instead'. BT want £25 per quarter for that (more than the cost of a residential line with an answerphone doing exactly the same thing!) and will only do it for up to a year. That'll mean losing everyone – and there are people who do this – who make a note of the number then call it years later.

Then we get onto the choice of which new number to have. An ordinary boring 020 number will be that £120. Cheap for people to call, costs us £60 a quarter with Smart Divert. But where to site it? And what happens when they move?

The alternative is a 'non geographic' number – the 0800s, 0845s, 0870s etc. These can be redirected to any 'real' phoneline. (Mind you, if you want to change where you redirect them to, you can end up paying £25 a time, so don't even think about trying to do away with Smart Divert.)

As Arthur C Clarke predicted decades ago, the real cost of calls is now tiny and almost entirely independent of where they end up. The fact that you pay more for eg long distance calls than local ones is purely down to marketing and companies charging what the market will bear. So it's not surprising that various sorts of lines are available.

0800 numbers are free for callers (unless they're using most mobiles, but it turns out they make an exception for calls to at least some telephone helplines) because the receiving end ends up paying the cost of the call. Exactly how much depends on who sells you the number, but it can be up to 12p a minute. Most providers charge a 'rental' fee as well (£60 a quarter with BT, for example). As a helpline, we'd qualify for a special 0808 number — still free to call, but it'd cost us about 4p per minute to receive calls on top of the rental. No thanks.

0870 numbers are meant to cost people with BT lines the same as a 'national [non-local] call', but they're much more expensive with other providers. (There are people who think they should be redesignated as 'premium rate' lines.) Because they generate large piles of cash for the telecoms company, they're prepared to share it with you. BT, as ever, is the meanest, but finding someone who'll give you an 0870 number for free and hand over 1p per minute every time someone calls it is not very difficult.

It was tempting, but not for long. For example, BT residential customers on the 'BT Together'* scheme (which experience tells me they are put on whether they request it or not, and even if they explicitly say they don't want it) are charged 1p (rather than the usual 1.5p) per minute for evening local rate calls and 2p (rather than 4p) per minute for evening national calls. Except that 0870 numbers are still charged for at the 4p per minute rate. Not good.

There are also lines that cost the caller even more — like 0700 numbers and anything starting with 09 — which are so profitable that it's hard to move without suppliers begging you to have one, but that was never a realistic option.

In between 0800 and 0870 is 0845, which for most people costs the same as a local call, even with BT Together. As there's less money to go around, many suppliers (including BT of course) expect you to pay to receive calls on an 0845 number and with most of them, the difference between receiving an 0800 call and a 0845 one is pretty small. (It even turns out that some suppliers will charge you more for receiving off-peak 0845 calls than peak rate 0800 ones!) Fortunately for us, there are some suppliers who don't charge to receive 0845 numbers.

So we've gone for an 0845 number – 0845 450 1263 – from one of them. This costs us £120 per year in rental, but nothing per minute.** I'm not entirely sure if the supplier is going to make any money off us, but at the moment I don't care.

Sorting out the BT end was somewhat harder. All we wanted to do was set up Caller Redirect on the old number and have an existing line in someone else's flat be the one with Smart Divert. It should have been simple.

However, it does not help customers trying to get the best deal that trying to get a paper copy of the BT price list which will tell you definitively what they will sell you for how much is almost impossible, searching it on the BT website is hopeless, and the downloadable version is stored in a deliberately annoying format. Once you do manage to read it all, you discover that they've been letting you pay more than you needed to for the past decade (hmmm, could this possibly be why it is made so difficult to find out?***)

It is made worse by the fact that some of the people answering the relevant BT sales lines would have difficulty finding their bottom with a torch and a map. For example, one BT 'droid' got quite annoyed when insisting (wrongly) that the Caller Redirect was £25 per month, rather than per quarter. Another messed up a request for Ring Back Inhibit, the free stopping of callers to your number using the Ring Back When Free**** service, and marked us down as wanting the £4-odd per quarter Ring Back No Fee***** service instead. And I made the mistake of believing a third who insisted we couldn't have Smart Divert on a residential line (you can, but you can't have a special deal we didn't want bundling it with another service we don't want) so we ended up wasting time and effort converting a residential line to a business line… and back again.

But I think it's all sorted out. We've certainly been receiving calls on the new setup. And we're going to use all this as an opportunity to have a bit of a publicity campaign.

The end result is that the next year will cost us about twice what it otherwise would, and subsequent years will cost about 50% more. But at least we shouldn't have to go through this ever again. If the current host of the answerphone (me) moves, we'll be able to keep the same 0845 number and move where it ends up with a simple phone call.

What makes me optimistic about that is the way our 0845 providers proved more efficient than expected (they said it'd take a week to set up, but in fact took just two days) and no shifts were missed.

Their surprising speed did mean that callers one Friday got an old answerphone message that was only slightly more polite than 'leave a message, you bastard' but I was quite amused to see that two people actually did. One was from a London GLB project that a) really should have known the answer to the question they wanted answering, especially given how much they get in grants and b) really should have given me the job I applied for with them a year ago.***** * The other was from someone looking for a date that night for his bi girlfriend…

Of course, it didn't turn out quite that simple. The pile of paperwork you get from BT when you do something like this revealed, on close inspection, that we'd been paying for years for a 'fast repair' service we've never used. That was cancelled… and strangely, the line suffered a failure immediately afterwards. Odd that. Added to BT managing to change the PIN used to control Smart Divert without bothering to tell us, that meant that we did, in fact, miss a couple of shifts.

But given the effort involved to ensure the line's survival, I don't think that's too bad.

Ian Watters


* At the time, BT had an almost complete monopoly on residential landlines. Of course, they used this to exploit their customers. A number of firms had used cheap prices to buy phone capacity in bulk and started 'carrier pre-select' businesses – by, for example, dialling a short prefix before the number you actually wanted, you said 'I want this call to be billed by Swiftcall (or whoever) not BT' – that could save customers lots of money. This was especially true for international calls, but also applied to UK calls too.

BT Together was the response: in exchange for a small-ish fee on your BT bill, the actual cost of UK calls would be less. Customers were often put on it by default, so even if you used an alternative carrier, BT still got more money from you. Alternative carriers complained, OfCom sided with BT.

** Since this was written, the cost of getting an 0845 number has fallen – you can certainly get a free one and may well find someone willing to pay you to have one – because the cost of calling them has risen.

*** In 1998, BT were given a "final reminder" by their regulator over their failure to make "an accurate and comprehensible" price list easily available.

In June 2020, the BT "price guide" to residential customers is 217 pages long, up from 134 pages in October 2016. I strongly suspect it's not complete: there aren't nearly enough pages on products and services that aren't available to new customers but are doubtless still being charged to people who are still on them.

The full BT business price list is currently only available as fifty eight separate .zip files typically containing dozens of HTML files, plus eight further .zip files of notes and notices.

**** 'Ring back when free' allows callers who get an engaged tone to say 'automatically call me when the number I'm calling stops being engaged. It's great when calling a friend, but for a phoneline, it's a nightmare and means that if you're busy, the only callers you'll get are people able and prepared to use it.

Typically of BT, you had to actively stop people using it when calling your number.

***** Allowing you to use 'Ring back when free' without paying each time.

***** * I couldn't remember which one that was at first – I knew it wasn't Stonewall, because I wouldn't have called that Gay, Lesbian, & Bisexual at the time. The job reference means it was probably an HIV service in East London, then known as London East AIDS Network (LEAN) and now called Positive East.

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!