The woman on the phone was desperate. She had been lying to her children, she said, telling them she was going to play mah-jongg, but really she was going to a lesbian bar. She couldn’t stop, and she wanted to know: What do I do? It was a Friday night in 1972, and the newly minted hotline she was calling, the Lesbian Switchboard, had just planted itself at the Women’s Liberation Center in New York’s Greenwich Village. According to archives — including detailed call logs — at New York City’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center, a single volunteer answered calls such as these every weeknight between 6 p.m. and midnight, offering resources, support and advice.
The hotline was inaugurated by 15 lesbian feminists who, called together by Naomi Goodhart, an activist in New York’s nascent lesbian feminist scene, crammed into a modest office to answer a literal and figurative call. Their purpose: to unite and embolden gay women across the country. Their tool: one touch-tone phone sitting atop an industrial metal desk. Volunteers distributed little chartreuse calling cards at lesbian events and spaces, and ran ads in gay publications. The network of callers grew as women found these notices and passed the digits along.
Until its closure in 1997, the Lesbian Switchboard was a critical emotional bolster for many women in the throes of questioning or crises. It provided a hub for New York’s burgeoning lesbian feminist movement in the 1970s, which celebrated lesbianism as a political as well as sexual identity in the years following the Stonewall riots in 1969. The Switchboard quickly became one of many DIY community institutions through which lesbians, bridled by gay rights’ male-centric rhetoric, built a sense of communal identity and mutual support that have since been largely lost as queer spaces have dissipated.
Denise Tuite, a native of south Brooklyn, started working at the Switchboard in 1988 after being kicked out of her conservative childhood home. The room, she recalls now, was small: 10-feet-by-10-feet, located at the top floor of a rickety walk-up. The rent was $35 a month, low enough to keep all the bills paid with funds collected from individual donations. Its bare appearance spoke to its functional utility. No knickknacks, no frills, no windows onto the outside world. At one end, there was a wall-sized bulletin board, at the other, the desk with the touch-tone phone.
Pinned to the board, stuffed in binders and wedged in rolodexes were slips of paper and pamphlets with information on LGBT publications and parties, movies and social groups. There were materials about therapy for individuals or couples, help for drug and alcohol abuse, legal aid, day care facilities, forums to look for roommates and apartments, lesbian organizations in other cities and contact info for female doctors, car mechanics, carpenters or psychiatrists (some of whom were lesbian).
One evening in early January, Tuite excitedly sat down to prepare for the night of calls, turning on the radiator and putting on a pot of coffee. After 45 minutes, the phone finally rang. A woman wanted to know the name of a lesbian bar in Queens. Tuite dutifully looked it up and relayed the information. At 7:11 p.m., a rap call came in — the most challenging kind, as the caller has no specific request and just wants to chat, but potentially the most rewarding type of conversation a volunteer could have. Such calls varied in their focus; sometimes a rap call was from a woman who was lonely that particular evening, other times it was from someone more desperate, or even suicidal.
“Hello, Lesbian Switchboard,” Tuite answered. The woman on the end of the line sounded nervous. The caller had just had her first sexual relationship with another woman. She wondered, should she let the other woman know how inexperienced she was? Was she even gay? Tuite consoled the caller. There are a lot of pros to being honest with somebody, Tuite said. She talked her through the benefits and drawbacks of having an open conversation with this partner. After 10 minutes, the caller abruptly hung up.
A slew of informational calls followed: What was going on this weekend? What were the numbers of good female gynecologists? One caller, in an abusive relationship, wanted the number for a gay anti-violence hotline. Another asked whether any lesbian poetry readings were coming up. Were there any art galleries specifically dealing in lesbian themes?
Tuite knew, from her own agonizing experiences, how to listen, give advice and convey compassion to the women who called needing validation. Her role, like that of her fellow volunteers’, was to assume a crucial part in a community that was growing steadily in its strength and visibility throughout the 1970s and ’80s.
As understanding around gender and sexuality fluctuated near the turn of the century, however, the Switchboard debated its responsibility to the trans community. Few volunteers would answer calls from transgender women, who were still viewed divisively within an organization that wanted to serve only lesbians, narrowly defined. Ex-Switchboard member Karen Raphael felt the hotline could, and should, have played a role in helping legitimize trans women’s identities. “Even though it was anonymous, it was your voice out there,” she said of the courage it took for transitioning women to call in. Her fellow volunteers’ lack of consistency in caring for the trans community, among other callers in need — like women of color, whose intersectional identities were widely overlooked in early lesbian feminist ideology — was one of the reasons she eventually abandoned her post altogether in 1989.
The hotline sputtered on for a few years, losing money and volunteers to ideological fractures like these and a dwindling interest in donating or contributing to the Switchboard in general. Tuite and Goodhart, the Switchboard founder, were two of three remaining volunteers who worked until 1997, when the women quietly hung up the receiver for good. By then, the Internet was widely available and personal computers were becoming as common as televisions. Much of the information that the Lesbian Switchboard offered had moved online.
More than a tiny office and a clunky landline were lost when the Switchboard closed up shop and Internet chats opened. Such forums are sites of “neutral disembodiment,” according to geographer Oona Morrow, primary author of a paper about feminist research online. On the Internet, people typically choose usernames that are different from their actual names. This screen of anonymity can mean Internet conversations involve less trust and depth than is possible on the phone. Written comments also often lack the nuance of a spoken utterance; they can be misinterpreted, or they can fail to resonate with the information seeker at all. Threads, as a form, tend to sprawl, and contributors can’t assume that everyone participating shares a common ground.
Even queer dating apps, commercial enterprises that can masquerade as community-building tools, aren’t built on a foundation of — nor aim to foster — communal ideals like the Lesbian Switchboard. Stefanie Duguay, a communications professor at Concordia University in Montreal who specializes in how queer women connect and self-represent online, argues that most of today’s lesbian gatherings are driven solely by opportunities to share branding, increase app downloads and gain potential users.
“They don’t lead to deeper investment by the people that come, or to investment in new spaces or buildings where people can have a community on a regular basis,” Duguay said.
In the decades since Tuite, now 68, was an active volunteer, gay and lesbian people have gained greater acceptance and representation and wider rights. By the early 2000s, lesbians were being favorably depicted in pop culture, from “The L Word” to “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” and the fight for visibility seemed like it had been won. In 2003, the Supreme Court finally ruled against sodomy laws and in 2015 it deemed that denying same-sex partners the right to marry was unconstitutional. Tuite appreciates this progress, but rues that it has come at the cost of the dissipation of lesbian community — there’s no longer the same need for lesbians to cling to each other for recognition and support, she said.
“Just thinking about going to work at the Switchboard makes me feel good. Like I was fighting the good fight,” Tuite says now. Despite the abuse she had to take as an out gay person in the ’70s and ’80s, she remembers the queer community then as a kinder and gentler world. It offered refuge, understanding and spaces for growth and stability. The women who worked at the Lesbian Switchboard, sitting alone in a room, waiting for the phone to ring, were not there to socialize. They were motivated by a desire to care for each other and create community.
Tuite hasn’t engaged apps or chat rooms. “I feel like I’m in a cocoon,” she said, far removed from the gay community that she was once a crucial part of. Today, she lives in Brooklyn. After she left the Switchboard, she poured her energy into her work, an antique restoration storefront. She remained single. She never went out of her way to meet other gay people. She felt that, in order to prove herself as a capable professional to the straight community, she had to devote herself solely to her role as the proprietor of her business. “I was trying to say to the world, ‘I’m just like you!’” she said.
While Tuite is no longer actively engaged with the lesbian, or greater LGBTQ, community, she still harbors an intense desire to form meaningful connections. Cloistered in her one-bedroom apartment, she is, in some ways, like the caller who was once at the other end of the Switchboard phone line: waiting, alone and in anxious anticipation, for a sympathetic ear and a bridge to community. “It’s been a lonely life,” she told me over the phone. “But that’s why I wanted to work at the Switchboard. I imagined that callers felt that way, too. And I wanted to help.”
At the end of our conversation, as we said goodbye, Tuite added, “ You have my number. You can call me anytime.”