Since its launch, the National Helpline and its volunteers have continued to provide a listening ear for callers who get in contact about a range of struggles, personal issues, and even moments of celebration.
It operates on evenings and weekends, with volunteers given training that empowers them to listen, relate, and signpost people to any relevant services they might need. The main reasons people called the helpline in 2022 were related to sexuality, coming out and gender identity, among others. While certain elements of the queer experience in Ireland have come on in leaps and bounds in recent decades, LGBTQ+ people here still face unique challenges where a listening ear from someone who also identifies as queer could do the world of good.
This was the sentiment of LGBT Ireland CEO Paula Fagan, who explained how the service came into existence, why people use it, and why it remains as important a resource as ever in 2023.
“Before the National Helpline, the different helplines were all open on different nights and for a few hours a night,” she explained. “They came together and had the idea to set up one helpline number, open seven nights per week that anyone in the country could access. Previously, you would look up the number in a phone book. Even trying to get the numbers for different helplines was hard. The idea was to have one number you could ring from anywhere.”
Describing the nature of many of the calls made to the helpline, Paula revealed, “It hasn’t changed. People still, in 2023, need support with coming out. Sometimes that’s coming to terms with their identity themselves, or it’s working out how they tell people, and who they tell. Sometimes it’s talking about a very ordinary or regular problem. But it’s because it’s a same-sex relationship, for example, they’re more comfortable talking to us.”
While the helpline, by its very nature, receives calls from people who are in distress or deeply struggling, some calls tend to be celebratory, with LGBTQ+ people looking to express their excitement with another queer person, like when they’ve been on a first date. Whatever the caller needs, there is someone there to listen.
“Unfortunately, a lot of people who call are in crisis and in very complex situations,” Paula added. “They need a bit of support. That could be someone, for example, who is trying to navigate trans healthcare in Ireland and at their wit’s end. It’s complex in the sense that there isn’t an easy answer.”
One person who agreed to speak about their experiences calling the helpline, Tara, had a unique coming to terms with her sexuality. Having developed feelings for a woman while in her mid-40’s after separating from her children’s father eight years prior, Tara was faced with a number of concerns and decided to ring the helpline for a listening ear.
Tara found it to be an invaluable help in her situation, explaining that the volunteer who answered her call “might not have had my answer, because it wasn’t their experience, but they knew somebody who did.”
“I didn’t know anybody like me,” Tara explained. She called the helpline on a number of occasions with various worries she had, as she lived in a rural area and was worried about how her children would be treated. Every time Tara called, the volunteer who answered the phone would find someone who could help her, or at least alleviate some of the worries she had. They were able to put her in contact with parents who “happened to be gay”.
One of the volunteers echoed what Paula and Tara explained, revealing that there are a variety of reasons why people call and, often, they just need a listening ear. What is perhaps striking is that many of the reasons for their calls are for what seem like regular problems, relationships, for example, but they have a queer “flavour or angle”.
The volunteer explained, “A lot of the time for the callers the issue isn’t so much the ‘gay’ issue. It’s the isolation. Maybe they’re okay with their sexuality, but they have nobody to talk to about it. They want to talk about a date or something like that.
“You can signpost people to social groups, counselling, or somewhere they can find medical help. But sometimes the advice you’re giving to people is just telling them to be a bit kinder to themselves and to tell them that they’re not weird.”
While 2023 seems a far cry from the days before Marriage Equality and when same-sex couples and trans people were rarely seen in movies or TV, many of the issues LGBTQ+ people in Ireland have historically faced still prevail in calls made to the LGBT Ireland National Helpline today. In fact, last year saw “the highest number of hate or violence-related calls” as Paula explained.
One thing that Paula has noticed changing over the years is the nature of the calls from parents of LGBTQ+ people. Paula worked as a volunteer for Dublin Lesbian Line in the ‘90s and early 2000’s. 20 years ago, she explained, parents would call in distress, as they couldn’t see a happy future for their LGBTQ+ children. Nowadays, they call in need of support, but they know that their children can get married and there is more hope.
While those significant improvements in the queer experience in Ireland shouldn’t be overlooked, the need for an LGBTQ+ helpline is still very much there.
“As human beings, your mental health ebbs and flows, and it’s good to have LGBTQ+-delivered services,” Paula said. “People can also ring and let us know that they’re having a good time because it’s still not totally celebrated in mainstream life.”
A helpline volunteer echoed Paula’s point, “A lot of the calls are just personal problems that might have a queer flavour or a queer angle. They’re just small things to do with something like relationships.”
They added, “One thing that is very striking on all of the calls is that a lot of LGBTQ+ people hit some milestones later in life. Some people who come out in their 20’s are dipping their toes into relationships like people might have done in their late teens if they were straight. They might have no one to ask at that stage.
“It doesn’t have to be a dire situation for people to call. If you just want to chat about something, it can be for that too.”
Explaining their reasons for getting involved with the helpline, that same volunteer said that they wanted to do something constructive with their spare time.
“People always say ‘gay community’ or ‘LGBT community’. It takes a bit of effort to make a community. I wanted to participate in that and connect.”
They added, “There are difficult calls, but in general, it can be very rewarding. We’re not therapists or medical professionals. A lot of what we do is signposting and listening. 90 percent of the time I come away from the helpline thinking, ‘I did something there’. It feels constructive.
“It’s not a huge time commitment, around two or three times a month. It’s not the easiest volunteering sometimes, but it’s very rewarding. They gave us really good training which was very well organised and executed, and we felt very empowered to do it after that.”
The value of having a helpline for LGBTQ+ people run by LGBTQ+ people is clear, and Paula and her colleagues work hard to ensure that anyone who might benefit from the service knows that it’s there. Outreach work sees the team at LGBT Ireland reach out to members of the Traveller and Roma communities and older generations of LGBTQ+ people in Ireland, for example, to ensure that the service is there for any queer person who feels like they need a chat, a listening ear, or someone to point them in the direction of where they can find help for the issues they are up against.
The free LGBT Ireland National Helpline is supported by SSE Airtricity and can be reached by calling 1 800 929 539.