My first memory of a telephone in my childhood home near Burton-on-Trent in the Midlands was of a paint splattered black rotary dial model sitting on a stool at the foot of the stairs. The design had changed relatively little since the 1950s, though the one we had was made of plastic rather than Bakelite and was more curvaceous than some of those earlier models. It stayed with us well into my teens and for most of that time was one end of a party line. This meant you had to press an extra button at the top of the phone before you started dialling. Sometimes you caught snatches of conversation from our mysterious phone partners and they, presumably, caught snatches of ours.
This odd incursion into our home wasn’t the only way this phone felt less than private. Positioned in the most accessible part of the house, it was a functional object rather than one for intimate conversations you might not want overheard. My mum invariably appeared wanting to know who was calling and phone time was also curtailed: she wanted the line kept free so others – and especially my five older siblings – could call in. They often called reversing the charges from public payphones (also black back then and with a rotary dial like our domestic model). The phone introduced a certain anticipation and anxiety into our home. I remember being excited when it rang when I was little (was it one of my big brothers and sisters?) but also remember my mother’s worry when my sister called in the evening from a payphone in Leeds in the late 1970s. Having no phone in her house, she walked between home and the call box at a time when the Yorkshire Ripper was still at large.
In the early 1980s my brother returned from university in Manchester and stuck a ‘Rock Against Racism’ sticker over the disc in the middle of the dial. It fitted perfectly. Other stickers followed, overlaid on those that went before. In my early teens I remember a smiley yellow ‘Nuclear Power No Thanks’ sticker looking back at me as I chatted – sometimes awkwardly – to new friends. I began to realise I fancied one or two of them, and in those phone conversations I doodled on that sticker as I guarded my enthusiasm. The sticker gained glasses and the sunny smile soon turned down (I wonder how that conversation had gone?).
In 1986 the Don’t Die of Ignorance AIDS leaflet landed on our doormat. I was 16 and there was one piece of information I took note of immediately: the number of Gay Switchboard in London. This time privacy was imperative and I waited until I was home alone to make the call. Though I don’t don’t recall exactly what we talked about, I feel I do remember the voice of the real live London gay man at the other end of the phone. On my visits to my oldest brother’s flat in London I had surreptitiously checked out the bars and clubs in the capital and the attractions of Brighton in the lesbian and gay section of Time Out, a London listing magazine. I imagined the faceless, nameless, but seemingly self-assured Gay Switchboard man to be part of that scene. London already had a queer appeal to me.
Our black telephone and its stickers was an emotionally charged object in our household, especially for me as an, uncertain, naïve queer teen. The phone was both a hub in a familial network of support and a tenuous link to a thrilling (and terrifying) queer world beyond. My subsequent historical research has alerted me to the ways my domestic experience of that object in the 1970s and 1980s touched broader queer cultures, networks and intersecting politics at that time. The phone I’m remembering is a kind of queer source. Even though in and of itself it was quite ordinary, it sits at the heart of my queer memories and opens lines into the queer past.
Line 1: Dorset 1-9-5-0
In the early 1950s in rural Dorset the teenage Rex Batten had a short-lived but passionate affair with Ashley, a man in his thirties. Rex moved a couple of years later to a bedsitter house in Camden (central north London) with a different boyfriend. The payphone in the communal entrance hall there brought news of Ashley’s arrest for having sex with another man. Rex’s rendition of this saga in his fictionalised memoir – Rid England of this Plague (2005) – pivots on that payphone. It becomes a totem of anxiety as he recounts incoming calls, messages taken by the landlady, and discreet or evasive conversations. Phone numbers recorded in address books or passed on on scraps of paper could be incriminating, and Rex feared that the phone might bring alarming news. Was the net that snared Ashley closing in on him too?
Sometimes home did not seem the safest or most relaxing place to be, and Rex and his boyfriend would go to the local cinema in order to ‘escape’ the phone and what it might portend. There Rex recalled seeing Victim (1961), the Dirk Bogarde film of queer blackmail. The film stayed with him probably because it was amongst the first overt and sympathetic films about queer life; perhaps also because it touched the particular anxieties that often accompanied queer life prior to the partial decriminalisation of sex between men in England and Wales in 1967, and of which Rex was only too well aware. In the film the telephone communicates those feelings and brings them home. The blackmailer threatens his victims from payphones; one of those is shown calling his wife who waits uncertainly at home. The phone also communicates a sense of loneliness as isolated figures are shown talking fearfully into black mouthpieces. Telephones are a means in Victim of communicating the complex knot of emotion that were seen to characterise queer lives at this time.
Phones could be lifelines and love lines too. Rex recalls the whispered conversations with his boyfriend and reassuring calls with his parents. Some thirty years later, during the early 1980s, the photographer and queer archivist Ajamu X used to wait outside a payphone in his home town of Huddersfield, Yorkshire, to speak to his first boyfriend – the only other black guy he encountered at Gemini, Huddersfield’s local gay club. Professionally printed cards and pieces of paper were often jammed into the window frames and around the phone in these call boxes (at least in the UK’s bigger cities). These mostly advertised female escorts but some were placed by rent boys and by men seeking casual sex with other men. This ephemera heightened the sense of the phone and phone box as sites of erotic and monetary exchange. The rotary dial domestic phone and the pay phone thus came to symbolise multiple dimensions of queer life. They were folded into lived experience, bringing other places and people to bear and challenging an insular sense of locality.
Line 2: Leeds 1-9-7-8
A payphone and the distance between it and my sister’s shared (all women) house in Leeds’ Chapeltown area was, I’ve already noted, a source of real anxiety for my parents because of the appalling attacks and murders of women in that same area over the preceding years. These added an urgency to local feminist activism against male violence. Organised resistance included one of the first Reclaim the Night marches in the country, arson attacks on porn shops and a raid on a misogynist exhibition. Activism was mobilised through telephone trees: the planning, details and consequences of actions were communicated by each woman to a designated list of others. They would in turn pass information on to women on their lists. Waiting for, receiving, and then making calls from pay and home phones was in this way an integral part of feminist and lesbian politics (as it was of radical action more broadly). During the early 1980s a group of would-be lesbian mothers in Leeds also relied on the phone. A go-between collected sperm from donors, some the members of an anti-sexist men’s group, and phoned ahead to tell recipients it was on its way.
Lesbian Line began operating in Leeds in 1978. It had been initially intended that Gay Switchboard, established around 1974 in ‘a really grotty basement’ owned by the university students’ union, would cater for gay men and lesbians. But many lesbians felt women should be able to call and know they could speak to another woman. Some had ‘terrible terrible stories’, remembers one volunteer: it was important, she said, to ‘recogniz[e] that gay men’s agenda [wa]s not our agenda’. Leeds Lesbian Line ran from that same phone and the same basement on a Tuesday evening. It was an uneasy cohabitation. Some gay male callers felt they were treated roughly when they called on the wrong day. One ‘heard quite a few stories that if they rang up on Tuesday, they really got a bollocking from the women’. A former volunteer, though, said men were ‘politely asked to ring on another night’. ‘The fact that we had one night and they had six nights meant that those two hours were kind of precious’. The separatism that was a feature of lesbian and gay lives and politics across the UK in the 1970s and 1980s was especially pronounced in Leeds because of the particular trajectory of feminism there and the impact of the ripper murders.
Line 3: Manchester 1-9-7-4; Plymouth 1-9-8-4
A gay switchboard was set up in 1974 at the students’ union and then moved to a cramped basement in Waterloo Place. Manchester Lesbian Group, a TV/TS group, Manchester Campaign for Homosexual Equality, and Friend, the associated lesbian and gay counselling service, also moved in. Together they formed a gay centre which has endured until the present (in three different venues). The lines out of the centre offered advice and information on a scene that was still often difficult to access: Gay News tended to be London-centric; Mancunian Gay didn’t launch until 1982. In its first year Manchester Gay Switchboard received around 1,200 calls; by 1988 it took about 18,000 per year. Callers sought information, support and respite from the isolation some felt living or arriving in the city. (‘Help for the troubled thousands’, Manchester Evening News, 28.6.88)
Other cities’ phone lines were attuned to specific local and particular queer dynamics. Tipped off by callers, local phone line volunteers passed on news of one-off or last minute events, protests and marches, or spates of arrests in particular places. Prudence de Villiers helped set up the Lesbian line in Plymouth in 1984 because of a letter to the feminist magazine Spare Rib from a woman who felt she had no-one to turn to in a city better known for its sailors than its lesbian networks. In Plymouth, as in other cities, bands of volunteers were needed to answer calls. These locals trained, socialised and fundraised together. Phones spawned friendships, relationships and communities beyond the commercial scene. I imagine these various phones in these various places covered in stickers like the ones on the battered black model in my family home. These marked the connections between gay and lesbian and other movements and causes: principally at this time feminist, antifascist, anti-racist, peace and anti-nuclear. The phone might be connective both as device for communication and as a material object.
Line 4: AIDS – 1-9-8-6
Volunteers on the phone lines were especially attuned to virulent and escalating homophobia during the 1980s. People would ring up ‘and abuse us, tell us what poofs and perverts we were,’ said one Leeds volunteer. Phone line volunteers were also at the coalface as the AIDS crisis hit. They could be the first point of contact for many people with the virus and others who were worried about catching it. When the Don’t Die of Ignorance campaign was launched in 1986 London, Gay Switchboard lines collapsed under the weight of calls; I probably hadn’t helped. In Manchester in 1984, switchboard volunteers set up a dedicated AIDS Line to deal with the scale of calls on the subject. As demand grew further AIDS Line became the George House Trust, Manchester’s main AIDS advice and support charity. Less formally, telephone trees like those deployed radically in Leeds and elsewhere in the 1970s were used to share news of sick or dying friends, and to pass on details of funerals and memorials. The phone was an ambivalent object for Derek Jarman in the late 1980s. Sometimes he let it ‘ring off the hook’ rather than face the news it might bring. Early in the epidemic he recounted the experience of being the caller rather than the called – spending ‘an anguished night […] making telephone calls’ to the lover and parents of a newly diagnosed friend who had six months to live.
By the time I was in my late teens it was easy to cheaply install extra phone sockets and extension cables. My parents replaced our old phone with three white push button models in plastic wall mounted cradles in the kitchen, in their bedroom, and in the hall. I could retreat with a phone now, but I was always alert to the possibility that someone might pick up elsewhere in the house.I was more confident in myself now and perhaps because of this and – more broadly – because phones were more ubiquitous, this next generation of equipment has less of a place in my queer memory or nostalgia. When we bought a new phone for our new home in London a couple of years ago we chose a replica of the rotary dial model from my childhood. This new version has a kitsch twist: it is sprayed silver. It recalls those queer telephonic dynamics of my early years, and speaks to the wider place of such phones in queer networks and emotional landscapes of the 1960s to the 1980s. Phones were not available in silver then, and that campy silver retouching marks a distance travelled since. I barely use this pseudo-model. Unlike my smartphone it doesn’t move with me, doesn’t have those apps, and doesn’t hold my calendar or photos. All those things are part of a different queer telephonic culture. As an object in my living room, though, my silver dial phone glances at the past and draws lines of connection to and between queers across the country.
NOTE: Leeds Oral History quotes are from the West Yorkshire Archive Service’s Now/Then local history project (2007-2009) or Queer Beyond London’s Leeds witness testimony seminar (2017).
Matt Cook is Professor of Modern History at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is a cultural historian specializing in the history of sexuality and the history of London in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In addition to three edited collections on LGBTQ histories, he is author of two books: London and the Culture of Homosexuality, 1885 – 1914 (2003) and Queer Domesticities: Homosexuality and Home Life in Twentieth-Century London (2014). Matt is also an editor of History Workshop Journal.