Louise Neilson details the launch of the Lothian Gay and Lesbian Switchboard Archive at Edinburgh University’s Lothian Health Services Archive
In April 2022, Lothian Health Services Archive (LHSA) launched its Wellcome Trust funded project, Speaking Out. The project was completed in June 2023 and involved cataloguing and promoting the Lothian Gay and Lesbian Switchboard (LGLS) collection.
LGLS was founded in January 1974 after the gay rights organisation, the Scottish Minorities Group, received a request from the Samaritans who wanted to refer clients to a specifically LGBT organisation.
A helpline was established and it took its first call on 2 March 1974, becoming the first gay switchboard in the UK (beating London by just two days). In 1986, it then became the first registered gay charity in Scotland.
LGLS was an activist-run mental and physical health service for LGBT+ people in the Lothians region and beyond. It offered a unique listening and befriending service to anyone experiencing issues or difficulties in connection with their sexuality. They also provided practical information, such as details about gay-friendly venues, promoted sexual health education, and advocated for legal and social equality.
Switchboard activists filled a significant gap in mainstream healthcare provision by offering tailored support to LGBT+ people, publicising sources of support through their specialist knowledge, and communicating with hard-to-reach groups with public health messages.
Switchboard worked with organisations to raise awareness of LGBT+ issues. For example, in the 1970s, Switchboard volunteers delivered education sessions on homosexuality to medical students and clinicians in local hospitals, and worked with the early HIV information charity, Scottish AIDS Monitor, to communicate key messages on sexual health after cases of HIV and AIDS came to light in the 1980s.
The archive collection comprises of records created and collected by LGLS, which includes minutes, correspondence, call logs, resources for volunteers and promotional materials. Records begin at a time when homosexuality was still criminalised in Scotland and continue through significant periods of both progress and increased discrimination. They chart the passing of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980, which decriminalised private homosexual acts between two consenting adults over the age of 21, through to the introduction and finally the repeal of Section 28, which prohibited the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ by local authorities.
This is an important collection of LGBT+ history in Edinburgh and beyond. It both complements and adds to a growing collection of LGBT+ archives across the UK in organisations such as the Bishopsgate Institute, the London School of Economics, the National Library of Scotland, and the Glasgow Women’s Library. It contains a large volume of personal accounts of LGBT+ life from the 1970s to the 2000s and captures the changing political and social landscape for the community at this time.
There are press cuttings from local, national and international newspapers and magazines which cover LGBTQ+ issues between 1999 and 2005. One particular strength of this part of the collection is the media coverage of the debates relating to the Scottish Government’s decision to repeal Section 28 in 2001. From public opinion pieces to editorial articles both sides of the argument surrounding the removal of the controversial legislation are represented and explored. As well as the successful repeal, you can also explore the introduction of the right for gay men and women to serve in the armed forces, the struggle to approve same sex adoption and civil partnership.
The collection also contains folders of material gathered by volunteers to allow them to build their knowledge on issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community. This material helped volunteers provide up-to-date information to callers on subjects such as sexual health (including HIV and AIDS), legal rights, and counselling. Leaflets, zines, and other publications from LGBT+ groups across the United Kingdom were also collected, both for information purposes and to pass on contact details of organisations to callers when necessary.
Information relating to those who used LGLS’s helpline have been captured across seven log books and almost 5,000 call cards. These were used by volunteers to record information such as why the person called, what advice they were given, and whether they were met in person.
People would call LGLS for all sorts of reasons, sometimes just for a chat, for advice on relationships, or to find opening hours of a gay-friendly pub. There are also repeat callers and you can occasionally track someone from their initial shy and nervous first call to their final call when they are confident and ready to accept and explore their sexuality.
But there were also many people who phoned because they were experiencing an extremely difficult time in their life. People facing physical and sexual violence, fear of having their sexuality disclosed, blackmail, unemployment, homelessness and legal, health and political discrimination. The call logs are undoubtedly of national significance and are a rich, historically important source on LGBTQ+ health, welfare and equality.
The LGLS collection is complex because it contains a large volume of personal and sensitive data. As a result, it was previously closed to researchers in its uncatalogued state. This includes data relating to volunteers who ran the service, as well as those who contacted and used the service, and of course these records are closed under data protection legislation.
People who contacted the helpline did so with the understanding that this was a confidential service and evidence of people’s anxieties around exposure are evident throughout the call logs, so protecting their identity is extremely important. Where callers’ data is concerned, it is not just names that could allow them to be identified. From our experience of working with confidential data, we know that confidentiality is not only a name. Confidential data includes a wide range of information that could be placed together to work out an identity, including [provide a few examples].
The project worked to open up the collection through cataloguing, rehousing and selectively digitising the collection. The process of cataloguing has allowed confidential records to be identified and closure periods to be applied where necessary, but it has also enabled non-confidential material to be opened for access by researchers for the first time.
It is possible for a researcher to apply for access to closed LHSA records. An application to the NHS Lothian Caldicott Guardian will be made on the researcher’s behalf by LHSA staff along with a letter from the researcher explaining the purposes of their research. The Caldicott Guardian will make a decision granting or denying access.
A significant resource created as part of this project has been a full review of almost 5,000 call cards and anonymised transcriptions of over 100 pages of bound log books. A call card spreadsheet contains anonymised summaries of every single card and captures essential non-identifiable data. As the call cards are closed until at least 2056 under data protection legislation, this spreadsheet will allow LHSA staff to manage applications for access to these in their unredacted state.
The catalogue is now available online as a first point of access for potential users and the collection is now as accessible as possible whilst adhering to data protection legislation. Researchers are able to access the material in the Reading Room in the Centre for Research Collections at the University of Edinburgh. Additionally, selected material has been digitised and made available to browse online. All materials have been rehoused in acid-free folders and boxes for their long term preservation and housing has been selected based on the physical characteristics of records and for ease of access.
Engaging the Archive
In addition to the main cataloguing grant we also secured additional funding through the Scottish Public Engagement Network (ScotPEN) to create a series of workshops. Together with Workshop Co-Ordinator Eloise Birtwhistle, we conducted outreach events to engage local LGBT+ groups with the history of LGLS, and to help participants develop their writing and creative skills. We brought together participants from both LGBT Health and Wellbeing’s LGBT Age Project (over 50s), and LGBT Youth Scotland (13-25) and guided them through a series of writing and zine making workshops. In each workshop participants discussed and created new works in response to LGBT+ experiences reflected in the LGLS archive, and we looked at the themes of protest, safe/queer spaces, and queer animals.
The workshops were designed to be informal and intergenerational and by bringing together different age groups we examined the past and the present – and imagined the future. Those who took part were not expected to have any previous experience in writing or zine-making, nor were they expected to have any experience in consulting archive material. This project is an example of how creative workshops can help demonstrate the power of archives to stimulate discussions on contemporary experiences and how they can work to break down barriers for community groups accessing archives in institutional settings.
The group’s writing and zines have been showcased alongside material from the LGLS collection in a digital exhibition: From Archives to the Future.
About the Author
Louise Neilson is a qualified archivist with an MSc in Information Management and Preservation from the University of Glasgow. She is the Access Officer for Lothian Health Services Archive and her role involves facilitating access to LHSA’s collection and conducting outreach and engagement events. From April 2022 to June 2023 she was seconded as Project Archivist to work on a Wellcome Trust funded project to catalogue and promote the archive of the Lothian Gay and Lesbian Switchboard.