Homosexual? Lancaster Gay Switchboard and Local LGBT+ Culture
Back in February, EPOCH editors Dabeoc Stanley and Karianne Robinson attended an LGBT+ History event organised by the Lancaster University History Department. Here, they met Peter Wade who was showcasing rare material relating to LGBT+ culture in Lancaster from the archives of Lancaster Gay Switchboard. Peter delivered a fascinating talk exploring this material and Lancaster’s role in gay liberation from the mid-1960s to the present day. For this issue of EPOCH, Peter has kindly given us access to photographs of three fascinating pieces from the archive. Each image is accompanied by Peter’s commentary on the work of Lancaster Gay Switchboard and the changing position of LGBT+ culture in the local area. Our thanks to Peter for this opportunity to share this important aspect of local history with a wider audience.
The Situation in 1976
Lancaster Gay Switchboard, as it was originally named, set out to provide information and advice to callers from North Lancashire and Cumbria. It operated for a couple of hours on Thursdays and Fridays, beginning in August 1976, just two years after London Switchboard began operations, and ahead of larger regional centres such as Manchester. Staffed entirely by volunteers and dependent largely on funding from within the LGBT community, Lancaster Switchboard was able to run for some twenty years.
The top half of this leaflet, Lancaster Gay Switchboard: A Confidential Information & Advice Service run by Homosexual Women & Men., depicts a range of cartoon figures, including a doctor and priest, offering prejudicial and unhelpful advice. In a clockwise direction this advice reads their comments read as follows:
‘We can cure homosexuals. Don’t worry. I’ll book you in for shock therapy next week.’
‘It’s just a phase you’re going through … Nothing to worry about … You’ll soon grow out of it’.
‘It is a great sin! You must try to hide your feelings … be celebate [sic] … or why not try marriage? Things will work out for the best’.
‘Why not try heterosexuality first?’
‘Sorry we can’t help you, but we’ll listen to what you have to say’.
‘A good screw and you’ll soon be alright’.
Beneath this cartoon, the leaflet outlines the necessity of the Switchboard service. The text reads as follows:
‘There is no shortage of advice offered to people who think that they are homosexual – from friends, ‘help agencies’, parents, doctors, and clergy – but unfortunately most of it is bad advice, often a result of ignorance or prejudice.
People in our society are generally prejudiced against homosexuals and scorn their sexuality. As a consequence of this many gay people are forced to hide their sexuality and suffer frustration and loneliness as a result. The kind of ‘help’ and ‘advice’ which most people offer to the person who realises that they are gay is only likely to succeed in making them more desperate and unhappy.
We feel gay people need practical advice from people who understand what they have to go through – in other words, from other gay people. This is why Lancaster Gay Switchboard operates’.'
LGBT Culture and the Role of Lancaster Gay Switchboard
The LGBT presence in Lancaster was generally very low in profile and to a degree marginal. A freer atmosphere among students and on-campus helped drive more tolerant attitudes away from the scrutiny of Lancaster’s more conservative society. A regional network of the Gay Outdoor Club helped provide some sort of LGBT presence across Cumbria.
The most common question Switchboard received from callers was about meeting places for LGBT people. There was generally at least one LGBT-friendly pub, usually one away from the centre of town. Only rarely were any of these gay-owned or run. Thursdays were usually recommended as the best time to gather. However, people would often favour Blackpool or Manchester for a more diverse pub/club scene for a weekend.
Today’s access to a whole world of diverse possibilities from the comfort of your own sofa would once have been unimaginable. An important change which began as Switchboard was winding down was the rise of social media and eventual dating apps. Switchboard eventually closed in 2007.
This poster advertises Lancaster Gay Switchboard. The title reads ‘Homosexual?’ Underneath this, there is a photograph of a group of university students sat on the steps in Lancaster University’s main square. One holds a Gays Against Fascism poster.
The text underneath the photo reads as follows:
‘make friends with gay people; fight for gay rights'
'for information about gay groups in the north-west phone: lancaster gay switchboard thurs & fri 6pm-8pm lancaster 63021'
'Or manchester gay information centre daily 7pm-9.30pm manchester 273 3725'
Into the Twenty-First Century
While gay pubs have declined in recent years from an already very low presence, there has been a rise in gay-friendly venues. The rainbow flag has been flown widely, even over town halls, acknowledging the presence of the wider LGBT community. Lancaster has also had an out gay mayor in recent years. These are examples of the ‘normalisation’ of LGBT culture as it has increasingly become not marginal, but mainstream. Yet, on an individual basis, the challenges of coming out remain for all.
The image shows a map of Lancaster city centre with sixteen markers highlighting some of the people, places and events involved in the LGBT history of the area.
People’s recollections of their involvement in LGBT activism in Lancaster and Morecambe have been captured in an oral history project available on the Global Link’s Documenting Dissent website.
Wade, Peter, ‘Nowt So Queer: Lancaster and Gay Liberation, 1965-2007’, Centre for North West Regional Studies, 10 (2011), pp. 24-42.
Peter is the custodian of the archive of Lancaster Gay Switchboard which currently occupies a couple of box files in the bottom of his wardrobe. It is hoped that the archive will eventually be digitised and made available to a larger readership.