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Icebreakers and the Switchboard:

Telephone lines as counterpublics in 1970s London

‘Icebreakers: A collective of homosexual women and men who run a nightly telephone service for other gay people of any age;’ ‘Britain’s First Gay Switchboard […] your hot-line to the gay community.’[1] These short descriptions served as advertising material for two seminal queer telephone lines, which were established in 1970s London—Icebreakers and the Switchboard. Both of the groups were part of a series of communication channels that were formed with the support of radical gay organisations—including subsidiaries of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF)—as an organised attempt to initiate a queer discourse in the UK.[2] Interaction with the predominant public, even in the form of friction, was necessary to attain social visibility.

During the 1970s the telephone lines, as various other groups, labelled themselves as ‘gay’ and/or ‘lesbian.’ Nonetheless, this historic analysis is often employing queer to describe their activity—a term that started becoming popularised in academic thought and activist vernacular during the 1990s, to encapsulate the fluidity of the sexuality and gender spectra.[3] The reason behind this retrospective characterisation is that both groups, despite the terminology they were using, conjured—through various media—more open-ended sexual identities, which escaped the ‘hetero/homo binary.’[4]  For the Switchboard, which continues to operate until today, I also intend to point at its historical transformation and eventual inclusion of other identities.

The role and scale of the groups differed significantly: while the Switchboard was aspiring to become an information platform, which would offer guidance in London’s chaotic queer scene, Icebreakers was an outlet for sharing one’s experience as a person of queer sexuality or gender.[5]  The Switchboard, aiming to develop into the first reference point for any need that may arise, sought constant expansion. Conversely, Icebreakers maintained a small, intimate scale. Through telephone conversations and in-person meetings, Icebreakers tried to encourage its callers to embrace their queer orientation.[6] Many classified Icebreakers as a counselling service—despite its resistance to this labelling.[7]

For all their differences, Icebreakers and the Switchboard shared many attributes. Their predilection for the telephone as a medium was not accidental. The need for direct communication laid at the heart of both organisations. For the Switchboard, that was mainly on account of its objective to share information as rapidly and efficiently as possible.[8] Icebreakers, on the other hand, was pursuing the creation of a trusting environment, which would encourage disclosing private thoughts.[9] Notwithstanding their original agendas, an intimacy, which was afforded by oral interaction, became the defining characteristic of both groups. Since the volunteers on the other side of the line also identified as gay or lesbian, ringing the telephone lines was a means to talk to someone that faced an analogous predicament.[10]

Furthermore, sustaining them required an excessive number of resources—including physical space—which were very difficult to acquire.[11] To secure these resources, Icebreakers and the Switchboard had to advertise themselves through other media, including various ephemera. In that respect, they can be perceived as vulnerable media infrastructures—the term infrastructure here is employed to describe the nexus of mechanisms and human assets that comprised them, as well as their symbolic function in the Gay and Lesbian movements of the time.[12]

Finally, contrary to other telephone lines, such as ‘Friend’—a counselling service established at roughly around the same time, which strictly adhered to telephone consultation—Icebreakers and the Switchboard were interwoven with urban life, particularly the city’s queer scene. The Switchboard was essentially a roadmap for centres, discos, pubs, communes, or any spaces that may have been relevant to the caller. Icebreakers organised live sessions and events, all across London.

This dissertation study focuses on three key questions: first, in what ways did the telephone lines participate in the radical project of challenging heteronormative structures and pushing for queer visibility?  To investigate this enquiry, I will examine in detail the history of how the groups were developed, as well as their implicit and explicit goals. Second, how was the establishment of Icebreakers and the Switchboard enabled by the acquisition of resources, including physical space? I am interested in the organisational structure of the telephone lines and the strategies they developed to cover their needs. In short, I will attempt to understand how they were set up as media infrastructures, which were precarious, constantly facing the risk of extinction. Third, how did the telephone lines, manage to have an impact on the local geographies they were located in, but also transcend them and operate at a city-wide level? This entails a consideration of how the telephone lines started interconnecting queer spaces in London, creating dynamic networks, and becoming points of reference for the queer life in the city.






[1] ‘Gay Icebreakers,’ 1970s-1980s, HCA/EPHEMERA/508, Hall Carpenter Archives; Gay News, issue 46, February 1974, Gay News Issues Collection, Bishopsgate Institute Special Collections and Archives.

[2] For the Switchboard see: ‘Press Releases,’ 1975-2007, SB/12/7, Switchboard- The LGBT+ Helpline Collection, Special Collections and Archives | Bishopsgate Institute. ; for the Icebreakers: Tony Walton, ed., Out of the Shadows: How London Gay Life Changed for the Better After the Act, 2010.

[3] Michael Warner, Fear Of A Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory: 6, 1st edn (Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press, 1993).

[4] Robert Mills, ‘Queer Is Here? Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Histories and Public Culture,’ in History Workshop Journal 62, n.1, (October 1, 2006), p. 258 <>

[5] Pamphlet, ‘Gay Icebreakers,’ 1970s-1980s, HCA/EPHEMERA/508, Hall Carpenter Archives.

[6] Ibid.

[7] ‘Gay News’ issue 46, February 1974, Gay News Issues Collection, Bishopsgate Institute Special Collections and Archives.

[8] For the objectives of the Switchboard, see: ‘Gay News’ issue 31, September 1973, Gay News Issues Collection, Bishopsgate Institute Special Collections and Archives.

[9] Pamphlet, ‘Gay Icebreakers.’

[10] Ibid.

[11] See, for instance: ‘Administration Group-Minutes,’ 1991 1976, SB/1/9/1, Switchboard- The LGBT+ Helpline Collection, Special Collections and Archives | Bishopsgate Institute.

[12] For symbolic queer infrastructures, see: Ben Campkin, ‘Queer Infrastructures LGBTQ+ Networks and Urban Governance in Global London,’ in Queer Sites in Global Contexts: Technologies, Spaces, and Otherness, edited by Regner Ramos and Sharif Mowlabocus, 1st edn (London; New York: Routledge, 2020), pp. 82–97.

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