We’re continuing to welcome you into our archives with our “Lives from the Archives” series, where we chat to people whose stories are included in our archives. This week, we spoke to Natasha Walker, Co-Chair of Switchboard.
Switchboard is an LGBTQ+ Helpline that was established in 1974 as “London Gay Switchboard” and took its first call on 4 March. The organisation was established to provide information and advice for the gay and lesbian community, with all telephonists being volunteers who self-identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. We’re honoured to hold the archive for this organisation, who have continued to be a safe space for anyone to discuss anything, including sexuality, gender identity, sexual health, and emotional wellbeing.
Find out more about the archive and how it came to be at Bishopsgate Institute in our chat with Natasha below. You can find out more about the Switchboard archive here: bishopsgate.org.uk/collections/switchboard
What stories of yours can be discovered in your archive?
The Switchboard archive is jam packed full. From old safer sex campaign posters, to photos from the very first phone rooms below and above Housmans Bookshop, to minutes from general meetings, stats on the calls across the decades but, most importantly, the log books – untold stories from Britain's queer history. The Switchboard log books are these living, breathing diaries, with pages full to the brim of the notes made by the volunteers who staffed the phones from the charity's very first day in March 1974, to 2003 (when the move to computers happened).
They offer a unique insight into the range of issues facing LGBTQ+ people in Britain in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Stories range from police entrapping gay men meeting for sex in toilets, to women losing custody of their children for being lesbians. They include people kicked out of pubs for wearing pro-gay badges, alongside those struggling with gender identity before the language existed to make sense of it. The log books laugh and cry with the real lives of runaways and disco-dancers, with isolated fishermen phoning to chat, and people unsure about how to have sex.
What part of your archive do you particularly like to re-visit?
I love delving into the log books time and time again. I have been lucky enough to have read the entire collection and have learnt so much about Britain’s queer history, laughing one minute and crying the next. We owe a debt to the people who came before us, and helped us get to where we are today and those people and their stories live on in the log books, held safely in the Bishopsgate Institute archive.
We have created The Log Books podcast so that you can also join us in revisiting this incredible resource – I personally feel a tremendous responsibility to share and educate people not only on Britain’s LGBTQ+ history, but also the integral role that Switchboard plays in it: supporting and informing people from 1974 right up until today.
Why did you choose to deposit your archives at Bishopsgate Institute?
Bishopsgate Institute's reputation precedes itself, a well established historical archive that not only hosts the LAGNA archive but countless other iconic LGBTQ+ historical archives. Not one to shy away from the sexually explicit or controversial activism in their archives, I love the sense of community that lives in the library, the collections, and the people who work and study there. There is a real value for queer history and its importance in our present. I couldn't think of a better home for the Switchboard Archive than in the safe and experienced hands of Stef Dickers and his team.
If someone came to our library and pulled out your archives, what would you hope they’d learn?
What strength, solidarity, and support can achieve – an incredible movement that has supported the LGBTQ+ communities since 1974 and still does today. Switchboard LGBT+ Helpline has answered millions and millions of calls throughout its 46 years, saving countless lives, and providing calm words when needed most. But most importantly Switchboard is still here today, still supporting the LGBTQ+ communities, still making living history.
Above everything, if we cannot 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? This isn’t just Britain’s LGBTQIA+ history, this is Britain’s history full stop.