The whole history of the LBGT movement has been one of setting up services at the point when we needed them. In the early 1970s the most urgent need was (a) for social groups and (b) for advice.
Social groups began to spring up soon after the passage of the 1967 Act, although hampered by the difficulty of getting any publicity. ‘Family’ newspapers and magazines wouldn’t take adverts with the words ’homosexual’, ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ in them. ‘Lesbian’ was held to be particularly abhorrent. Despite that, groups sprang up from 1968 onwards, many under the wing of churches, and many outside London.
Advice had been provided by the Albany Trust from 1964 onwards. The AT was the ‘counselling’ arm of the Homosexual Law Reform Society. It was officially to offer advice on all forms of sexuality because LGBT was held in a Law Lords’ judgement to be ‘legal but not lawful’ and still against the public interest.
The only way it could get charitable status was to leave out any reference to lesbians or gay men; indeed, it was not until the late 1980s that London Lesbian & Gay Switchboard became the first organisation specifically for queer people to get charity status. The Beaumont Society catered for people who were TV/TS, as they were called then, but this was not thought to be a gay ‘problem’.
The Campaign for Homosexual Equality set up FRIEND in 1971, a telephone counselling service which also pointed people to non-commercial meeting opportunities, either the local CHE group or get-togethers organised by FRIEND itself.
It modelled itself very much on the Samaritans, and an early patron was Canon Michael Butler, a leading light in the Samaritans. From London the network spread slowly out across the country.
The first outfit, which specifically called itself a ‘Gay Switchboard’ was set up by the Oxford Gay Action Group in September 1973. It was open most evenings a week from 7.30 p.m. to 10 p.m. London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard followed in March 1974, and is still going strong, with a purpose-built centre in Islington worth millions and a very sound financial base.
These days much of its informative function has been taken over by the internet, and it no longer operates a 24-hour policy, but it still offers support and advice 12 hours a day.
Switchboards proliferated all over the country, and by the late 1970s there were Switchboard conferences involving people from up to fifty organisations. There were many furious arguments within these.
London Switchboard was deeply resented because it seemed to be trying to tell everyone else what to do. People from London despaired at the often-ramshackle arrangements under which other switchboard operated.
At the core of this was the concept of ‘professionalism’. Were we trying to be semi-professional counsellors, with cool heads and detachment, offering non-judgemental but also non-directional support, which enabled people to make their own decisions?
This was very much the attitude of FRIEND, London Switchboard, and the more conservative regional advice lines. On the other hand, Gay Icebreakers and Oxford Gay Switchboard said that we should not even aspire to ‘professionalism’.
Because all that we could bring to the table was ourselves, our commitments to LBGT rights and liberation, our positive example as open and happy homosexuals, and our inspirational energy urging the importance of coming out as a way of resolving most of the problems in which callers found themselves entangled.
To focus on anything else was to ‘play the straight game’, because it was impossible to be non-directional in a heterosexist society.
Following on from this, one of the issues which exercised minds and emotions was, should people from Switchboards have sex with callers? For the Switchboards affiliated to things like the Council for Voluntary Service, listed in Council directories or even getting grants, it was an absolute no-no.
For groups like Icebreakers, sex was just one of the weapons in an armoury designed to urge people out of the closet, to reinforce the validity of feelings long suppressed, and promote self-confident autonomous individuals.
I worked on Switchboards, first in Oxford, then in Birmingham (West Midlands Gay Switchboard) and finally with Icebreakers, which I left in 1984. Through all this period I saw the deploying of arguments all round these and related issues.
I saw moves to sack people or defend people who had had sex with callers. I heard arguments as to whether to seek council grants, or charitable status; whether to lay wreaths on Remembrance Sunday in some way gave endorsement to War Games. I heard countless abusive calls and learned of Switchboards such as Leeds which suffered arson attacks.
From this insider position I wrote my second full-length play, Nothing Personal, in 1978. It was a discussion play, an ‘issue’ play, and in some ways presented what I saw as uncomfortable truths. But behind that, I recognised two things:
Unlike London today, there was never enough money or time, premises were unbelievably shabby, volunteers were in short supply, and we were all running to stand still. Everybody was totally and perpetually exhausted.
The play was never performed. I upped sticks to come to London before ‘One in Ten’ could get its teeth into it, and in many ways it was too big for them as actors, or for their space.
It took two years in London to get Consenting Adults in Public to the point that it might have been able to perform it, but CAIP didn’t have the physical resources to hire a big enough space or build the sets it demanded. Then AIDS/HIV swept so many other considerations aside, and suddenly the play began to seem dated.
Nothing Personal is dated, but I wanted to include it in the Lockdown season because I feel it still presents a very accurate picture of those times in the mid-to-late 1970s.
This was a time when we were still trying to work out both the ethics and the mechanics of self-help; when there was nothing and no-one to help us to set rules, except hand-me-downs from heterosexual and bourgeois organisations many of us distrusted profoundly; when most conventional advice lines could still talk about ‘illness’ and ‘cures’; when, for better or worse, however misguided we might seem to have been in some ways, we were all that there was.
The reading on 26 January 2021 is therefore a World Premiere.
Peter Scott-Presland, January 2021
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