Solidarity and Isolation in 1980s Britain to now – The Bradford Lesbian Line

Throughout LGBTQ+ history there has been a long-standing reliance on physical social spaces within the queer community (Anderson, Austin and Knee, 2020). Whether this is in queer support groups, Pride marches or socialising in queer clubs and bars, accessing these spaces allows us to feel part of a community and safely congregate. However, this is not the first time in history that these spaces have been unsafe for people to access. Britain in the 1980s was a time of a radically conservative Government, the looming HIV and AIDs crisis and the eventual passing of Section 28 which made the mere act of existing in LGBTQ+ spaces unsafe.

Unlike this current period of isolation, LGBTQ+ people in the 1980s could not try and bridge this gap with social media or Zoom events. Instead, phone lines that were designated specifically for LGBTQ+ people began to open nationwide in towns and cities such as Cambridge, Manchester, and Glasgow. These phone lines offered LGBTQ+ people a safe way to engage with their local community and receive potentially lifesaving advice, referrals to other services or invitations to social events.  Although the phone lines that exist today are for any member of the LGBTQ+ community, early phone lines in the 1980s were fragmented and were set up by certain members of a community for their community. One example of this is the Lesbian Line – these were phone lines specifically for Lesbians and would be advertised in feminist magazines such as Spare Rib or in the local gay newsletters.

A advert for Lesbian Link - Manchester's phone service for Gay women.
Advert for Manchester’s Lesbian Link – published in Manchester’s Lesbian Express (1977)

It is difficult to find any history about the specific Lesbian phone lines outside of advertisements or local reporting, as they were often only run by a small number of volunteers. However, the history of the Bradford Lesbian Line has been captured through Oral History interviews that were carried out as part of the West Yorkshire Queer Stories project. Interviewer Ray Larman spoke to Lorraine Birch, one of the founding members of the Bradford Lesbian Line about the beginning of the line and the common issues faced by callers. The line operated out of Bradford University and received a small amount of funding to train members in basic counselling skills and to pay for the phone.

Text reads: Lesbian? Advice - Information. Thursday 7pm-0pm/ Ring Bradford 305525.
  Bradford Lesbian Line Advert – Retrieved from the West Yorkshire Queer Stories Archive

This phoneline and other Lesbian Lines provided key services including mental health support, rape and domestic violence services referrals that were specifically for gay women in relationships with men or women, and simply providing space for community bonding. Lorraine also explains how the phone lines also provided a gateway for lesbians to meet other queer people in person, helping to combat the isolation that many LGBTQ+ people felt at the time. Lorraine speaks about how the line members would meet with callers in person and take them to pubs and cafes to help find their local community. These events were incredibly popular, and all helped to fund the service and provide training for the members. 

A advert for Bristol and Bolton Lesbian Lines as seen in Spare Rib (1988).
Advert for local Lesbian Lines as seen in Spare Rib, Issue 196 (November 1988)

Reviewing the history of the Lesbian Line can give us a great insight into issues that still affect lesbians and other LGBTQ+ people to this day, many of which have been accelerated due to the global pandemic and stay at home orders. While there has been a huge increase in the amount of online queer spaces, such as online drag shows or Pride events (Anderson, Austin and Knee, 2020), many queer people have now been isolated away from the community for almost a year. Much like in the 1980s, LGBTQ+ people are once again relying on telephone lines to access community spaces safely and receive LGBTQ+ specific support. The LGBT foundation recently reported a 123% increase in calls to their helpline from callers needing support with substance use, domestic violence, and mental health crisis. They also recorded a 57% rise in calls specifically related to isolation (Batty, 2020). Meanwhile, the charity Opening Doors has shifted to phone support specifically for LGBTQ+ people over 50 throughout the pandemic and reported a huge 400% rise in calls (Megarry, 2020). The issues that were affecting Lesbian callers in the early 1980s are the same affecting callers today and whilst this sadly highlights that these issues are still hurting the community, it is warming to see that 40 years on from the original phone lines, someone is still there to pick up the phone.

Physical queer leisure spaces act as safe spaces away from hegemonic heterosexuality (Anderson, Austin and Knee, 2020), but the coronavirus pandemic meant that many queer people lost access to these vital physical spaces overnight, with a number of them never to open again. It is important to capture the history of these phone lines as they allow us insight into the issues faced by Lesbians in the 1980s and highlights the work of the volunteers who ran these lines. However, it also begs the questions: why, after over forty years, are these issues still prevalent at all?

List of References:

[1] Anderson, A.R & Knee, E. (2020). Queer Isolation or Queering Isolation? Reflecting upon the Ramifications of COVID-19 on the Future of Queer Leisure Spaces. Leisure sciences, pp.1–7.

[2] Batty, D., 2020. Lockdown having ‘pernicious impact’ on LGBT community’s mental health. The Guardian, [online] Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/aug/05/lockdown-having-pernicious-impact-on-lgbt-communitys-mental-health> [Accessed 1 March 2021].

[3] Megarry, D., 2020. ‘I just want to talk to someone’ – how coronavirus is increasing isolation among older LGBTQ people. Gay Times, [online] Available at: <https://www.gaytimes.co.uk/life/i-just-want-to-talk-to-someone-how-coronavirus-is-increasing-isolation-among-older-lgbtq-people/> [Accessed 1 March 2021].

[4] Oral History Interview with Lorraine Birch (2019), Interviewed by Ray Larman, West Yorkshire Queer Stories. [online]. Available at: https://wyqs.co.uk/stories/bradfords-lesbian-scene/full-interview/ [Accessed 20 February 2021]

Additional Resources:

[1] West Yorkshire Queer Stories Project Website [https://wyqs.co.uk/]

[3] LGBTQ+ mental health information and services:

  • Mind LGBTQ+ [https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/lgbtiqplus-mental-health/about-lgbtiqplus-mental-health/]
  • MindOut LGBTQ+ Mental Health Charity [https://mindout.org.uk/]
  • Opening Doors London Website [https://www.openingdoorslondon.org.uk/]
  • Switchboard LGBT [https://switchboard.lgbt/]

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