Written by Orla Egan
LGBT telephone helplines have always been seen as crucial for providing support and information for people who are coming out and who are trying to access the LGBT community. The Cork IGRM had set up Tel-A-Friend, a telephone counselling service, in 1977.
Around 1984 a small group of lesbians began to meet in Cork with the aim of setting up a Lesbian Line befriending and information service. Helen Slattery notes that “we had a commitment amongst ourselves to make it easier for newcomers to find other lesbians.” The groups received training from the London Lesbian Line and a guide for self-training. (Deirdre Walsh interview with Helen Slattery in Linc Cork’s Lesbian Magazine, Issue 2, May 2001)
Around the same time the Cork Gay Collective began to consider setting up a telephone information line. A number of meetings were held with the Cork Lesbian Collective to areas of co-operation. The Cork Gay Collective’s minutes suggest that the Cork Gay Collective may have been more interested in greater co-operation and co-ordination with the Cork Lesbian Collective, but that the lesbian group were only interested in discussing sharing the costs of the telephone lines. (Cork Gay Collective Minutes 1984)
The Cork Lesbian Line began operating on Thursday nights in January 1985. It “grew out of an awareness of the problems of isolation and lack of information facing lesbians. The Line aims to counteract this by providing support and contact and giving a positive image of lesbians ….. Women contact the line for a lot of different reasons. The variety of enquiries range from calls from women who are first coming out, women unsure of their sexuality, to lesbians wanting to contact other lesbians and find out what social events are happening …. A lot of the women who ring up are in a very isolated position and feel themselves to be the only one in the world. We stress that they are not alone and we aim to give them a positive view of themselves and of lesbians.” (Article written by the Cork Lesbian Line in Out for Ourselves: The Lives of Irish Lesbians and Gay Men, Dublin Lesbian and Gay Men’s Collectives and Women’s Community Press; Dublin; 1986)
An entry in the third edition of the Alternative Ireland Directory explained why the Cork Lesbian Line was set up: “The Cork Lesbian Line came into existence in January 1985. We feel this service is greatly needed. Some of the main problems facing Lesbians are isolation and the damaging effects that the popular stereotype image of Lesbians has upon them. We hope to counteract this by being a first meeting point and to give a positive image of Lesbians. Because of the fact that this public telephone service is run by Lesbians means that we can understand a lot of the problems faced by Lesbians when they are first coming out. We all feel that Lesbians are kept invisible by the paranoid heterosexual dogma of society. Heterosexuality is seen as the ‘norm’ and the only way to be. This has the effect of silencing women who are questioning their sexuality and makes them feel that they are in the wrong. Because Lesbianism is generally considered a taboo subject, Lesbians are kept separate and isolated from each other. The few images of Lesbians that are given to us in this culture are totally negative and damaging. As part of our fight against this we believe the Cork Lesbian Line to be essential.” (Lesbian and Gay Section in Alternative Ireland Directory 3rd Editon, Quay Co-op, Cork)
Gay Information Cork also began to operate in January 1985. It was “an information service run by gay men for gay men ….. Our objective is to make positive information available to gay men – besides the telephone other areas of work are leaflets, getting books into libraries, making sure that health and welfare agencies have good information for gay people etc.” (Cork Lesbian Line/Gay Information Cork Leaflet No. 1, June 1985)
One of the main problems facing both lines was how to advertise the service they were providing. The local newspapers, the Cork Examiner and the Evening Echo, refused to carry advertisements for the Lesbian Line and Gay Information Cork, claiming that it would be illegal to do so. (Series of letters between Cork Examiner and Gay Information Cork) A letter from the Chief Executive of the Cork Examiner in 1986 claimed “that the type of activity referred to is illegal and, accordingly, any advertisement referring to same is also illegal and, as such, we must decline publication.” (Letter T.E. Crosbie, Chief Executive, Cork Examiner to Arthur Leahy, Gay Information Cork, 20th November 1986 (Arthur Leahy collection)) This presumably refers to the fact that gay male sexual activity was still illegal in the 1980s. Lesbians were not covered by that legislation but the Lesbian Line advertisements were still refused. Helen Slattery claims that the Cork Examiner refused to take the Lesbian Line advertisement, claiming it “wasn’t suitable”. (Deirdre Walsh interview with Helen Slattery in Linc Cork’s Lesbian Magazine, Issue 2, May 2001)
Despite interventions on behalf of the information lines by politicians, trade unions and health professionals, the newspapers continued to refuse to carry the advertisements. This had serious consequences in terms of publicising the services available and the number of callers to the lines remained low in the early years. The Cork Lesbian Line’s article in the 1986 Out for Ourselves states that the number of calls received averages at two calls per night. The Cork Gay Collective’s minutes note an average of 0-5 calls per night.
The Cork Lesbian Line produced stickers to advertise their service “but even in the most ‘alternative’ of places they were pulled down almost immediately.” (Article written by the Cork Lesbian Line in Out for Ourselves: The Lives of Irish Lesbians and Gay Men, Dublin Lesbian and Gay Men’s Collectives and Women’s Community Press; Dublin; 1986)
The telephone lines did succeed in having their numbers placed in the telephone directory. Helen Slattery recalls “We were brave for our time. I remember going in to put the listing in the telephone directory for the Lesbian Line. It was all done in a very strained silence, with a lot of pointing to the offending work ‘lesbian’. It felt like a great victory that they accepted it.” (Deirdre Walsh interview with Helen Slattery in Linc Cork’s Lesbian Magazine, Issue 2, May 2001)
Despite these difficulties the Cork Lesbian Line and Gay Information Cork continued to operate throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and still operate today, under the umbrella of the LGBT Helpline.
Writing in 2000 Baukje notes that “16 years on, the service is just as necessary as during those initial years. This is reflected in an ever-increasing amount of callers ….. The initial aim is never underestimated or forgotten and that is to be a listening, understanding and confidential ear on the other side of a telephone line.” (Baukje “The Cork Lesbian Line Collective” in Linc Cork’s Lesbian Magazine Vol. 1, Issue 1, November 2000)