On 23 March, 2020 when the United Kingdom officially went into lockdown, like many organisations across the country, Switchboard found themselves stepping into the unknown. For the first time in the LGBTQ+ charity’s 46-year history, they had to shut down their phone room. It’s a service they have provided to the LGBTQ+ community since their inception on 4 March, 1974. In the beginning the helpline was operated out of a small room near King’s Cross, with volunteers answering calls for five hours each evening. At that time, just seven years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales, Switchboard were one of a very limited amount of services LGBTQ+ people could get support and information from. The gay scene was tentatively stepping out of the shadows, and the need for guidance, reassurance and community was more vital than ever.
Over the decades, Switchboard has continued to answer calls everyday, offering a friendly voice at the end of the phone to discuss anything and everything, including questions about sexual orientation and gender identity, sexual health, and emotional wellbeing. As more awareness of the work Switchboard did grew, they became the leading source of information in the UK during the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s. It was a period of fear and mass misinformation by the mainstream media, effectively demonising the gay community and creating stigma and isolation. It meant Switchboard’s helpline was integral in keeping LGBTQ+ people safe, informed and connected during some of the darkest days in queer history.
While the following decades saw greatly improved social attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people, better legal protections and rights, and more positive representation in mainstream media, Switchboard’s role in providing a friendly ear continues to be necessary. We have easy access to more information than ever before, but Switchboard’s phones continue to ring every day demonstrating that there is still very much a need for their volunteers to help vulnerable LGBTQ+ people. It’s for this reason that Skittles® recognised Switchboard as an invaluable resource for the LGBTQ+ community, and by supporting the charity they in turn can actively and meaningfully help thousands of queer people seeking answers and reassurance. LGBTQ+ charities always need support, but little did we all know when planning Pride season towards the end of 2019 just how much they’d need in particular this summer.
When the COVID-19 global pandemic brought the country to a standstill earlier this year, Switchboard faced the challenge of continuing its operation from the homes of its many team members. “We’ve never shut the phone room in our 46 years. We realised we had to keep the helpline open,” says Natasha Walker, Co-Chair of Switchboard. “Within 24 hours we’d set up a remote phone line with volunteers – for the first time ever – taking calls from home,” adds Emily Hatcher, who is a board member for the charity. The team swiftly devised a plan, re-routing their help lines to the phones of their many volunteers at home, conscious that if they closed many vulnerable LGBTQ+ people would be left helpless. It was no small operation, but Switchboard adapted to the challenging circumstances to make sure their long-serving commitment to the LGBTQ+ community remained during an unprecedented time of global crisis and uncertainty. The support and awareness that Skittles® offers to Switchboard was now more crucial than ever.
Switchboard volunteers selflessly give up their spare time to help those in need, and do so for many different personal reasons. “I’ve been part of Switchboard for about a year now,” says Olivia Powell. “One of the best moments was when I was on Regent’s Street and these two young girls were like, ‘Oh my god, there’s a Black volunteer.’ It was amazing. That’s one of the things I really value – being that representation.” Emily adds: “I chose to be one of those people on the end of the phone at Switchboard because I have been the person that has called. I wanted to be able to provide that kind of support for someone else.” But while the time and energy of its volunteers is crucial to keeping the queer lifeline that Switchboard provides running, it’s not enough on its own.
“Our community still needs that support from our allies,” says Natasha. “Skittles® have really helped Switchboard getting our number and name out [there] for people to know that they can turn to us.” This is the third year the much-loved family brand has supported Switchboard. This year Skittles® has worked closely with Switchboard and GAY TIMES to develop a far-reaching media campaign, raising awareness of the Switchboard helpline details and ensuring that anyone who needs help knows that there is someone out there for them to talk to. While awareness is key to making sure the most vulnerable LGBTQ+ people out there know that they are not alone, financial aid – especially during a global pandemic where traditional forms of fundraising during Pride season isn’t possible – is critical in keeping a non-profit organisation like Switchboard afloat. As part of supporting Switchboard for their Pride campaign this year, Skittles® will be making a donation to the charity. This will ensure those phone lines can still operate during this uncertain time of self-isolation and social distancing when vulnerable queer people need all the free accessible support they can get.
Since its inception, Switchboard has embodied the very spirit of Pride: making sure no queer person is left behind, giving back to the community in a big way, and continuing to ensure LGBTQ+ people across the UK feel valued and seen. “As long as the phones keep ringing and the emails keep coming, we will always exist,” says Natasha. “We are a fantastic part of society and we are a part of history.”
Switchboard’s helpline is open from 10:00 – 22:00 every day and can be reached on 0300 330 0630.