Lesbian Line – Remembering a life-saving lesbian hotline in the pre-digital world

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I’m grateful to be a lesbian. I’m also grateful – though this might prove controversial – to be a Millennial. Although my generation are regularly roasted for being constantly glued to one screen or another, integrating digital technology into your everyday life comes with certain perks. While our gadgets are growing ever more intrusive and addictive, they also serve as something of a lifeline. As a kid growing up in a tiny coastal town, the internet was a portal into another world: specifically, the world of lesbian culture. The internet was also the place where I learned what lesbian meant (although representations of how to be lesbian provided in the average work of fanfiction would prove not only to be anatomically incorrect, but physically impossible.)

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I remember being twelve or thirteen and typing things like “what does it mean if I like girls and not boys?” into the AOL search engine. I’d pour over forum entries and blog posts by girls not much older or wiser than I was, imagining that they contained the secrets of the universe. Afterwards, I’d clear the search history so none of my family would find out. Twelve year old me would be astounded – and overjoyed – to learn that the only shameful part of this story is ever having used AOL as a browser.

For a long time, I wondered: what did lesbians do before the internet? Life before the digital era wasn’t exactly some bastion of tolerance where women and girls could freely access information about lesbian identity, sexuality, or culture. Until I was eight years old, it was illegal for Scottish schools to teach anything about “the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” As is the case for so many questions, I found the answers in the Lesbian Archive housed by Glasgow Women’s Library. There, I learned the true significance of lesbian activism and community building. There, I learned about organisations like Lesbian Line – the first lesbian hotline in Britain.

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The idea of a lesbian hotline was so strange and beautiful that it made me nostalgic for a time I’d never known. Women and girls reaching out with their uncertainties, receiving much needed support and guidance from other women – in that respect, Lesbian Line offered a pure realisation of lesbian feminist principles. Logs showed records of women phoning for advice about coming out, details of the next lesbian disco, or the whereabouts of a lesbian bar. Lesbian Line began in 1977, founded and maintained by a team of lesbian feminist volunteers, and continued for another twenty years. From time to time I’d flick through the Lesbian Line materials in the archive and think about all the hundreds of women whose lives they touched – whether it was a friendly voice or legal advice for women trying to establish lesbian lives, Lesbian Line gave it.

The idea of a lesbian hotline was so strange and beautiful that it made me nostalgic for a time I’d never known. Women and girls reaching out with their uncertainties, receiving much needed support and guidance from other women – in that respect, Lesbian Line offered a pure realisation of lesbian feminist principles.

I was lucky enough to hear three founding members of Lesbian Line share some of their herstory at FiLiA, Britain’s largest feminist conference. Helen Bishop, Pam Isherwood, and Rachel Beck did a panel on their time as part of the Lesbian Line collective – it felt good to be part of a session and to occupy a space that was specifically about lesbian women. Being in a room with women who were part of Lesbian Line brought it to life in a way that log books and minutes of meetings don’t quite manage, although their documentation is a vital part of preserving lesbian women’s history. Owing to all the ways lesbians are erased from mainstream history, lest we open women’s eyes to possibilities that extend beyond the confines of heterosexuality, it is crucial that we pass those stories on. So, here’s the story of Lesbian Line.

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It’s hard to imagine now, given how corporate and complacent Pride has become over the last twenty years, but Britain has an incredible history of radical gay activism – most notably, the Gay Liberation Front. But a lot of lesbians left the movement out of frustration that women’s concerns were treated as a lower priority than men’s, and some of those women began Lesbian Line. Pam was clear that “we located ourselves within the women’s movement, as a lesbian feminist organisation.” Although there was the option to share gay spaces, the Lesbian Line team chose to prioritise feminist principles – the project was driven by a commitment to women.

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In July 1977 they placed an advert in women’s liberation newsletters to create a new information service for lesbians. These newsletters were circulated in women’s centres and community bookshops. Two weeks later, women who were interested came to a meeting about the practicalities of setting up. This sort of organising seems a world away from the modern day feminist movement, where Twitter hashtags and Facebook event pages and Whatsapp groups are pretty much essential to making anything happen, yet it was effective. According to Helen, you could “find a building, squat in it, say it’s a women’s centre, and do it.”

This sort of organising seems a world away from the modern day feminist movement, where Twitter hashtags and Facebook event pages and Whatsapp groups are pretty much essential to making anything happen, yet it was effective. According to Helen, you could “find a building, squat in it, say it’s a women’s centre, and do it.”

Lesbian Line was housed in the old Camden Women’s Centre premises. They held a fundraiser to get together enough money to pay for installing a telephone line. Word spread through the community, at lesbian nights in pubs and clubs around London, and plenty of women came for the launch party. Lesbian Line raised £80, more than enough for the phone to be installed, and the collective went to work. There was no formal training. Women who had previous hotline experience from Gay Icebreakers taught the women without experience how to (wo)man the phone. As Pam said, “we were there as lesbians for other lesbians and bisexual women, not as experts.”

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Listening to these accounts of Lesbian Line, I think it’s that human touch that enabled it to make such a big impact. When remembering Lesbian Line, Rachel said that “in 20 minutes you could change someone’s life directly – you could turn them around from a complete mess to feeling okay about themselves.” That’s no small accomplishment – especially in a time when men and women were demonised for pursuing same-sex relationships. Around 20% of all phone calls started in silence, but the Lesbian Line team were usually able to coax women into conversation and give much needed lesbian connections.

Around 20% of all phone calls started in silence, but the Lesbian Line team were usually able to coax women into conversation and give much needed lesbian connections.

Being the “only visible lesbian thing” resulted in many requests that were not typically made of switchboards. Lesbian Line set up a postbox so that women could write in, and answered these letters. They also established links with the Lesbian Custody Group, providing married women with the information they needed to guard against anti-lesbian discrimination in the legal system. And (what’s particularly brave, given there was no Google to aid detective work) the women of Lesbian Line set up social events in their houses on Sunday afternoons in order to build lesbian community.

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As Lesbian Line gained traction, it was also able to gain funding from London council. But this complicated the dynamic of a volunteer collective, and in 1999 the group disbanded. Lesbian Line closed just as the digital era was beginning. And while it is impossible for me to truly understand life in a context where a switchboard was a woman’s best chance at connecting with other lesbians, I absolutely grasp the need that brought Lesbian Line into being. I’d be lost without the lesbian friendships and communities I’ve entered online. Lesbian books, films, and culture would all be so much further away. For over two decades Lesbian Line was countless women’s portal into the lesbian world – which only grows more impressive with time.

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