How Activists Harnessed the Telephone and Built the Nation’s First LGBTQ+ Hotline

By Quinn Anex-Ries, NYPL Short-Term Fellow
April 28, 2022
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

On the afternoon of March 3, 1972, a man from South Carolina picked up his phone to call the Gay Switchboard of New York for information about gay-friendly places to visit during his trip to the city. Later the same day, numerous men and women called for information about bars, bathhouses, LGBTQ-friendly doctors, and community discussion groups. Others sought out emotional support related to loneliness, homophobia, coming out, and raising LGBTQ children. While these callers took to the phonelines for different reasons, they all found connection and someone to talk to on the other end. 

The more than 50 people who called on the 3rd of March were only a few of many who called the Gay Switchboard over the course of its decades-long history. The Gay Switchboard was initially conceived in the spring of 1971 by former members of the Gay Activists Alliance and the Gay Liberation Front as a centralized hub for sharing “information about the radically new gay liberation movement and culture born after the June 1969 Stonewall riots.” After a year of planning, the Gay Switchboard began taking calls on January 13th, 1972, making it the first and longest continually-operating LGBTQ hotline in the country.

Gay Switchboard Comic
Gay Switchboard of New York records, box 44

The calls fielded by the Gay Switchboard are recorded in thousands of pages of call logs housed in the Gay Switchboard of New York records of the Manuscripts and Archives Division at The New York Public Library. These logs capture the day-to-day fears, joys, pleasures, and questions that prompted callers to reach out to the Gay Switchboard as well as the reactions and thoughts of the volunteers on the other end. 

The calls received on March 3, 1972 provide a clear snapshot of the wide range of requests that volunteers dealt with over the course of a regular shift. Scrawled in spiral-bound notebooks, these records include notes such as: “2:00 A mother called because she was worried about her 22 year old son who seemed to be effeminate. Rapped with her for a while. The son might call us.” “4:35 ♀ called for number of women’s center.” “8:10 lonely older man called to ask where to meet people and talk.” And, “8:20 ♂ info on baths in Philadelphia.”

Gay Switchboard Photograph
Gay Switchboard of New York records, box 44

While the nature of these calls might seem relatively mundane to the current observer, the services offered by the Gay Switchboard of New York were revolutionary. By harnessing the power of the telephone, the Gay Switchboard provided callers with a safe, discreet, and private platform to access information about queer-friendly establishments and to have open discussions about sexuality and queer identity. 

These services provided callers with a lifeline in an otherwise hostile political climate, as many LGBTQ Americans experienced systematic criminalization, homophobia, and exclusion, even after Stonewall. One such caller from Iowa dedicated a poem to the Gay Switchboard after receiving support over the phone, writing “this is a tribute for the volunteers so true / that boy next door in Iowa / is going to make it through.” For callers likes this, the Gay Switchboard of New York not only offered care and advice but connected LGBTQ people to community regardless of physical distance. 

This year marks the Switchboard’s 50th anniversary. Carrying on its mission to serve the LGBTQ community, the organization operates to this very day as the LGBT Switchboard of New York, one of the many services offered by the LGBT National Help Center. Throughout its history the Switchboard has always been there to listen, offering callers an open and affirming forum for expressing themselves and seeking help.

As anti-LGBTQ attacks surge globally, community-run services like the Gay Switchboard of New York remain vital sources of support for LGBTQ people everywhere. Although telephone hotlines remain relatively under-discussed in official histories of post-Stonewall queer life, organizations like the Gay Switchboard of New York paved the way for an explosion of LGBTQ social services that serve as crucial resources for fighting against persistent homophobia and transphobia, and for building stronger communities.