Art & Culture

The podcast sharing the untold stories of British queer history

Each episode of the Log Books centres on records made by volunteers who staffed the phones at LGBQIA+ helpline Switchboard, from the charity’s first day in 1974.

Switchboard is one of the UK’s longest-running, volunteer-led charities for the LGBTQIA+ community. Established in 1974, for the past 45 years it has served to uplift queer people living in the UK; beginning as a telephone helpline it has since evolved into a support service providing guidance via phone, email and instant message. Initially helping individuals to navigate the nascent queer scene that began to emerge after the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality, it has provided members of the community through police raids, discrimination, and the climate of fear and grief that reigned during the HIV/AIDS crisis.

To commemorate the charity’s important and lengthy history, a podcast has been created that centres on the log books of volunteers staffing the phones over the years. By tuning into each episode we can gain insight into the different struggles that queer people have faced throughout time — reminding us of the successes of the LGBTQIA+ rights movement, which has seen the roll-out of gay and bisexual rights that would have previously been unthinkable, and the importance of mobilising for improved conditions for the trans and non-binary individuals who have always been central to queer communities. We speak to two of the podcast’s producers, Switchboard Co-Chair Tash Walker and comedian and journalist Shivani Dave, to discover more about the important project.

Could you briefly describe Switchboard’s history and aims?

Tash Walker: Switchboard began 45 years ago on 4th March 1974 in the basement of Housman’s bookshop on Caledonian Road, in response to a call to organise a ‘helpline’ by the Gay Liberation Front and Gay News, who were receiving an ever-increasing number of calls to their offices. When Switchboard started it was, as it still is today, a first point of call for many needing support. In the 80s and 90s it was the leading source of information on HIV and AIDS. As the effect on our communities became apparent, Switchboard’s volunteers collated and maintained a detailed manual of the latest and most up-to-date information available. We not only shared this with the many frightened callers to our helpline, but also with the general public.

How did the idea for the podcast come about?

TW: Over the last couple of years I’ve spent time working on and cataloguing Switchboard’s Archive which is now held at Bishopsgate Institute, which includes our logbooks from 1974 to 2003. These are the hand-written records of the calls taken by our volunteers and such an incredible resource —  a living, breathing diary — that tells the story of queer history in Britain. Earlier this year, as part of LGBT History Month, I presented my findings across the UK and at one of the talks was one of my co-producers Adam Smith. He came up to me at the end of the talk and was so blown away by this resource, just like I was, and he pretty much said ‘we should make a podcast’. We then got Shivani on board as another producer and we got to work.

The stories span the 70s to the 90s. Did you see specific stories or issues that recurred through the entire history of the logs?

 TW: This first season of The Log Books focuses on 1974 to 1982, with later seasons (hopefully) focusing on the later time periods. In the time that I’ve spent reading the log books, the most pertinent thing that has stood out to me whilst looking through them, is the consistent themes of the support calls. I found entries from 1975, 1988 and 2003. Each from a person questioning their identity, with themes of shame, confusion and loneliness. Themes which remain constant in the calls we take today.

Shivani Dave: Some of the calls are similar to the ones people make today but every era of the LGTQIA+ rights movement is also reflected. Switchboard would be inundated with calls about the particular social or political movement at that time; whether it was employment rights, or access to healthcare during the AIDS crisis.

How do the stories change as time progresses?

TW: Lisa Power a founder of Stonewall and ex-volunteer once said “The milestones of the LGBTQ+ communities can be traced in the calls Switchboard has taken” and I couldn’t agree more. What changes are the external events, like the progression of women’s right and the changes in legislation around men having sex with men. Also, in the early log books people didn’t have the language to be able to express an exploration of gender identity like we have today.

SD: You can see these ‘pockets of time’ where people call specifically about particular issues for example, when there were big political shifts and campaigns around Section 28. There are also differences in pre and post-internet calls. A lot of calls from the ’70s might have been about finding an LGBTQIA+ venue for a night out or places someone might go to hook up, but now with the internet, social media and dating apps there are less of those types of queries.

Why is it so important for us to look back at LGBTQIA+ history?

SD: It’s important to know where we have come from and the sacrifices people have made for us to have the rights we do now. There would be no glitter-filled Pride parades or Drag Race on TV (however problematic that may be) if it wasn’t for all the people who fought for our rights before us. As we are still struggling as a community to fight for tolerance, let alone acceptance, for our trans and non-binary siblings there is a lot we can learn from looking at the resistance surrounding the gay rights movement. A lot of that (incorrect) rhetoric is now being used towards gender non-conforming people. So I think it is important for all people, queer and heterosexual, to learn from that history so it doesn’t repeat itself.

TW: I totally second Shivani here. If we can’t learn from our history — from the challenges all members of our LGBTQIA+ communities have gone through and what we have achieved so far — then what hope do we have for a more equal future?

Recent months have seen the emergence of an LGB Alliance that has cut itself off from the aims of the wider LGBTQIA+ movement which seeks improved rights and conditions for trans and non-binary people. How do you think that projects like the Log Books can show that trans and non-binary people should always be central to LGBTQIA+  activism?

SD: I think a lot of it comes down to understanding history, again. Trans and non-binary people have always been central to LGB equality, and now that they are being persecuted in the media and in daily life I think projects like The Log Books are important to remind — particularly the LGB part of — the community how we have rallied together in the past, and need to rally together again now for the whole community. I also think a lot of queer and intersex people of colour are forgotten in the conversations about our history, The Log Books highlights a lot of these people who are often overlooked and reminds us of their contributions.

TW: As Shivani says, The Log Books allow us to look back on our history and, through hearing all the stories, ultimately to understand that we are all stronger together. Trans and non-binary rights are human rights, intersex and asexual rights are human rights, bisexual, lesbian and gay rights are human rights. The LGBTQIA+ community has faced division in the past, but we are at our strongest when we unite.

A new episode of The Log Books is released every Monday. You can check out all the episodes so far via the player below. 

11 November 2019