The central cast of It’s A Sin. (Channel 4)
Positive visibility in TV shows like It’s a Sin is inspiring LGBTQ+ people to be themselves even as Britain becomes more “hostile”, a report has found.
Findings from LGBTQ+ helpline Switchboard released Monday (22 August) have given an insight into what life has been like for LGBTQ+ people in 2020 and 2021.
Switchboard is the second-oldest telephone helpline in Britain, allowing LGBTQ+ people to seek support over the phone, email or through instant messaging.
After It’s a Sin aired in January 2021, Switchboard saw a spike in people calling for advice on HIV, inspired by the show’s unapologetic look into the AIDS epidemic in 1980s London.
“We got calls from people talking about the historic trauma around HIV and those who wanted to know more about HIV and actually make sure they’re protecting themselves,” Switchboard gender manager Stephanie Fuller tells PinkNews.
“Similarly, when Phillip Schofield came out on daytime TV at the start of the pandemic, we got calls from old gay men who directly referenced Philip Schofield coming out and saying that really made them address something within themselves.
“So all of these things, when they’re kicked around in the media, will have an impact – and they can have an impact in a good way, like with Schofield.”
The number of people seeking help from Switchboard about their gender identity more than doubled between 2020 and 2021 – soaring from around 1,900 calls logged to 3,100.
It was the third-most discussed topic before people questioning their sexuality (3,900) and relationships (3,600).
More trans people than ever before are also using Switchboard. Three in 10 users said their gender is different to that assigned at birth in 2021 – a 27.1 per cent rise from the previous year.
45 per cent of callers aged 24 and under said they were trans or non-binary.
Media attacks on trans people has ‘real-world impact’
There are many reasons for this rise, Fuller says, but the attacks on trans people by politicians and the press has played a big part.
“Visibility is about people understanding themselves better and realizing they’re not alone, so that’s one reason why we see more [calls concerning gender identity] now than we did, say, 30 years ago,” she says.
“But there is a lot of negativity in the media around trans and non-binary people and that has a real-world impact on people as they read stuff about themselves which does not feel like it’s true and they need someone to talk to. They’re often battling misinformation that they’re having to challenge.”
“Switchboard started in 1974 and lots of our community wasn’t at all out throughout the 1970s and 1980s, what with Section 28 and all that. The climate was probably as hostile as is now.”
The Conservative government has drilled down on trans rights in recent years. Ministers have abandoned gender recognition reforms and excluded trans people from a conversion therapy ban.
They’ve also signaled their intentions to ban trans athletes, limit healthcare for trans young people and stop schools from supporting trans students.
And it doesn’t seem these attacks are going to end anytime soon.
Both Tory leaders hopefuls Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss have loudly staked out plans to restrict trans rights even further even as voters express little interest in such plans.
Older LGBTQ+ people feel ‘disconnected’
Isolation has also become a problem for LGBTQ+ people, Fuller added. Many queer Brits felt socially isolated during the coronavirus pandemic, with lockdown restrictions cutting them off from friends, family and the queer spaces – but for some LGBTQ+ people, it was business as usual.
Volunteers spoke with more than 2,200 people about how they feel isolated in 2020, the report showed. Family was also a thorny topic, tallying 3,100 calls.
Trans service users, for example, described having to return to family homes unaccepting of their gender identity, often being deadnamed and misgendered, during the pandemic.
Isolation was also a big worry among older queer people in 2020.
One in 10 Switchboard users are aged 60 or over, the report showed.
Fuller said many older callers are grappling with ongoing feelings of being disconnected from the world. The pandemic only worsened this, especially for older LGBTQ+ living in small towns where the local pub or supermarket was the only place they could socialise.
“They feel like there isn’t a space in the world for them,” Fuller said, adding that as the community does something it’s never been able to do before – age – queer elders have become a trial run on how the world finds a place for them.
“Some go into sheltered housing and go back into the closet. Now the community’s ageing, they’re starting to encounter places they’re not really used to like the hospitals, sheltered accommodation and residential care. But isolation is the core of it.”
This makes services such as Switchboard all the more vital for vulnerable LGBTQ+ people, Fuller said, to remind them that they are not alone.
“What I think is important is most of the people that call Switchboard are saying out loud for the first time something personal about themselves,” she added.
“If they’re hearing things that are unsettling for them, then often Switchboard is the place they will say that before they work out whether to say it to someone connected to their lives.”