Words: Nicholas Smith
The ‘Coming Out’ call is likely the most common call we receive at Switchboard, the national LGBT+ helpline.
It comes in all shades of worry and relief, in all manner of hushed voices, from callers of all ages, in happy tones and sad tones, with uplifting endings and sometimes heart-wrenching ones, too.
The need to be open and accepted for who we are, whether it’s our sexual or gender identity, is a very human need. Whilst the path to coming out is often difficult, during this surreal and scary saga, the journey can be all the more daunting.
In my six years as a Trustee and Listening Volunteer at Switchboard I’ve taken a great many calls from young people who are at some point on that journey. Inevitably the call will turn to their home lives, their families and what support they have around them.
As volunteers we hope to hear that their parents are supportive, but all too common is a heavy pause, and the strained reply that ‘they’re just not ok with it.’
In the 46 years our services have been running, we’ve seen the circumstances for LGBT+ people improve immeasurably, yet we still listen to a concerningly large number of calls from young people who feel trapped in environments that are unsafe.
The lockdown is only helping to compound this feeling. Young LGBT+ people struggling even further to navigate homophobic and transphobic households, with parents and family who refuse to acknowledge or accommodate them for who they are.
Since lockdown began in the UK on the 23rd March, calls to Switchboard have increased by 35%, with a significant portion coming from those under 25. The vast majority of callers speak of increased stress, anxiety and fear brought on by the circumstances of the pandemic itself.
The most worrying are those who reach out from households where they fear for their safety; where they are harassed, mis-pronouned, deadnamed, belittled, ignored and abused.
Being cut off from friends and partners - our ‘chosen families’ with whom we were free to be ourselves - means being cut off from important lines of communication, intimacy and trust.
Whilst we were already facing increased calls around isolation and loneliness from across the LGBT+ communities, we’re now confronting calls on the effects of staying-in.
The pressure is mounting for young LGBT+ people having to hide who they are. Prior to lockdown, when young callers faced inhospitable homes, we discussed where beyond them they can find support.
Under lockdown these options are few and far between with social distancing in place and many national and local resources either closed or operating a limited service. This has resulted in many retreating inwards, concealing their identities for their own safety.
Yet, under crisis conditions, we see what our communities are really capable of.
In towns and cities across the country we’ve been inspired to see how the public sector and volunteer organisations have responded. Like them, Switchboard has been working to ensure our services remain open. This includes the rapid adoption of remote working for our volunteers, increased advertising at a local level and the publishing of a new Emotional Wellbeing Pack.
We’re here, and we’re listening. If it’s not safe to call, our instant messaging and email services are open and accessible.
Last year we unveiled a new campaign called ‘Safe Space’, framed around the belief that we all deserve a place that’s free from judgement and fear.
Nicholas Smith is a Trustee and Listening Volunteer at Switchboard
Many of us will understand that feeling of anxiety, that who we are might announce itself and our world would crumble in response. Few of us had to go through that and a pandemic that’s marooned us from our sources of support.
The theme for this year’s International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia And Biphobia - celebrated each year on 17 May - is ‘Breaking the Silence’. What I would say to those young people, such as those who’ve told us they cannot wait to return to school and the friends, teachers and counsellors who accept them, is to keep all lines of communication open.
If the relationships around you are draining to manage, spend time reconnecting with friends who may have fallen away. Take the time to discover the local organisations and resources around you. Most of all, carve out a space, physical or mental, just for you.
We must remind our community, especially our younger members struggling to see all the good the future will bring, that we have a long, storied history of survival.
We all have a part to play in checking-in and reaching out to those who may be struggling, and supporting the organisations who are trying to meet this huge and immediate demand.
Together we’ll ensure our community reaches beyond walls, and no person bears the brunt of lockdown alone.
Switchboard, the national LGBT+ helpline, operates a confidential helplines, email and instant messaging service open from 10am - 10pm every day. Call 0300 330 0630 to speak to one of our volunteers today or visit switchboard.lgbt for more.