By Mark McNease
Gay Switchboard Ireland, that country’s oldest gay support service, recently celebrated 40 years serving Ireland’s LGBT population. Along with a new Drop In service, they also launched a new website. When I read about them and everything they’ve been able to do for four decades, I reached out to their Director, Tony Cooney, for an interview. Here’s what he had to say.
MM: Gay Switchboard started in 1974 as Tel-A-Friend. Can you give us some background on the Switchboard – how it started and its early history?
TC: Gay Switchboard Ireland originally promoted itself as Tel-A-Friend. Homosexuality in Ireland was only decriminalized in 1993, effectively preventing Gay Switchboard from accessing statutory funding for many years. In fact, the telephone company wouldn’t allow the word ‘gay’ to be published in its directories and hence the name Tel-A-Friend (TAF) was created. Long time gay rights activist, Senator David Norris is accredited with inventing the name at the time. In its first year of operation TAF opened for three evenings a week and answered in the region of 380 telephone calls. The following year, the committee decided to advertise the service in the national newspapers and as a result the calls increased to almost 3000 highlighting a real need for the service. Call volumes remained reasonably static for a number of years until the onset of the HIV/AIDS crisis of the mid 1980’s when for a number of years call numbers rocketed to almost 6000 a year.
That pattern dropped down in the early 1990’s and since the mid 1990’s the average call numbers are again in the region of 2700-3000 calls per year. Tel-A-Friend eventually changed it’s name to Gay Switchboard Dublin in 1989, 4 years before homosexuality was decriminalized and this year the name has changed to Gay Switchboard Ireland, signifying the breadth and array of calls that it receives to the service from all parts of the country.
MM: A recent report from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland found that LGBT people are seven times more likely to attempt suicide. Do you find this has remained constant over time, and what impact has increased equality had, if any?
TC: Gay Switchboard answers a wide variety of call types. Part of our ethos is that every caller could potentially be someone who may have feelings of suicide if they can’t access the supports that they need. While we don’t get a high volume of callers who are actively suicidal or who have suicide ideation, we do receive quite a number of calls with themes of loneliness, isolation, bullying and stigma; all of which can be pre-cursors to someone becoming suicidal. Research has shown that LGBT people are inherently at a disadvantage when it comes to their mental health. Therefore, every caller to Gay Switchboard Ireland is supported and encouraged to explore their issues in a confidential and safe space without any judgments whatsoever.
Full equality for LGBT people in Ireland is on the horizon. Since the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1993, much progress has been made for Irish LGBT citizens. However, not everyone has been able to take advantage of such progress. For many, the ability to be themselves, come out and live a full life is not possible. There are still individuals and communities who haven’t accepted the progress as willingly as others thus preventing some people from being able to fulfil their true potential. Gay Switchboard Ireland receives calls from people who struggle internally with their sexual identity. We offer regular Personal Development Courses (PDC’s) for gay and bisexual men who are over 25. The PDC aims to increase and promote self awareness, improve ones self esteem and confidence and create overall better health and well being for participants. We deliver the courses 3 times a year in partnership with the Gay Health Network which Gay Switchboard Ireland is a member of.
MM: Ireland has a 2015 referendum scheduled on marriage equality. What do you think its chances are, and do you think marriage equality will have a positive effect or none on people who reach out to the Switchboard?
TC: The road to achieving full marriage equality in Ireland is going to be a tough one. While much progress has been achieved already, the last lap of the race, so to speak, will prove to be the most difficult. A lot of work still needs to be done to convince the general population that this is the right thing to do for its citizens. Lobby groups and organizations such as GLEN (Gay & Lesbian Equality Network) and Marriage Equality are at the forefront in advocating for change to full marriage equality. Gay Switchboard Ireland receives a small number of calls from people who have issues with their inability to live as full citizens. Overall, a positive result in the 2015 referendum will not have a major impact on the types of calls fielded by Gay Switchboard Ireland. Ultimately, our volunteers are trained and equipped to deal with whatever type of issue that they get when they pick up the phone.
MM: The Switchboard recently added a Drop In service and you’ve launched a new website. How is the Drop In service going?
TC: The Drop In service is a recent addition to the services that Gay Switchboard Ireland offers as we opened our door to the public on 7 December 2013. The service is supported by the Gay Health Network (GHN) and the HSE (Health Service Executive) and it’s primary remit is to reach out and promote HIV prevention and good sexual health among MSM (men who have sex with men). HIV and Gonorrhea rates in Ireland have increased over the last few years and part of the GHN strategy is encourage peer support within the community. Gay Switchboard Ireland’s volunteers are well placed and equipped to provide face to face support to callers who drop in on Saturday afternoons. We’ve been providing the service for 6 weeks so far and already we’ve had people drop in each week. In addition, our volunteers also host a phone and answer emails from 2-4pm to: email@example.com
MM: The audience for lgbtSr is over 50. Suicide, and its consideration, is one of the underreported tragedies for the aging among us. Does the Switchboard encounter many older LGBT people seeking help?
TC: Gay Switchboard Ireland receives a large proportion of calls from older LGBT people. Common themes are people who are living alone and feeling lonely or from partners who have been bereaved and are in despair because they have no one else to turn to at times. Older LGBT people in Ireland face issues such as a lack of awareness among their families and community about the fact that they may be LGBT or have had a partner for years.
MM: In a perfect world we wouldn’t need suicide prevention services. Until that world arrives, what would you say to LGBT people who find themselves in despair or just in need of someone to talk to?
TC: Gay Switchboard Ireland can’t emphasize strongly enough the importance of reaching out and seeking support when someone is in need. Often times, callers don’t know what to say; that’s fine. Our friendly volunteers are trained to listen and support without judging and won’t ever rush someone off a call. Everything that we are told remains confidential between the caller and Gay Switchboard Ireland so there is reassurance for the caller. As our new tag line states; ‘Too often we under estimated the power of a listening ear. It has the power to turn a life around’.
If you are in need of support, please check out our website www.gayswitchboard.ie for details on our opening times, services and other resources.
You can also follow us on Facebook at: Gay Switchboard Ireland or on Twitter at: @GaySwitchIrland
Each of the 41 Gay Switchboard Ireland volunteers gives their time for free to the community.
If anyone would like to support the work that Gay Switchboard Ireland does, then they can donate online at: http://www.idonate.ie/323_gay-switchboard-dublin.html
Tony Cooney is Director of Gay Switchboard Ireland. If you wish to make contact with him for interviews or further information please email: firstname.lastname@example.org