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It seems somewhat counterintuitive that a membership organization called Opening Doors London would be thriving in the middle of a pandemic. Based in central London, the charity typically does exactly what its name suggests, hosting 45 different groups and activities for LGBTQ people over age 50 each month, from film nights and creative writing workshops, to community gardening days and coffee mornings. Perhaps the most vital of all its social offerings, though, is a befriending service that gives companionship to the most vulnerable and isolated in the community by way of a weekly visit from a volunteer.
Given that a recent Stonewall report found that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people over 55 are more likely to be single and live alone, the COVID-19 outbreak has left older LGBTQ people at an even greater risk of loneliness than their peers. By the time social distancing was enforced in the U.K. on March 24, however, Opening Doors had a creative solution to the suspension of its face-to-face services: a free telefriending service. The newly launched helpline quickly began offering around 470 people on the charity’s postal list a weekly phone call with a volunteer, giving increasingly isolated members a chance to chat with someone familiar.
“We were getting 30–40 referrals per week, and we don’t even get that many in a year sometimes,” said Befriending Coordinator Meghan Herring, who matches members based on availability and personal interests. “The whole point is you don’t just want anyone calling you, you want something interesting to talk about.” From the outset, telefrienders were making critical interventions. “We spoke to one member who didn’t have lights in her kitchen or hallway,” she added. “I was able to do a referral on Friday, and by Monday, she had lights again in her house. We spoke to another person who was living off cereal and water, and we were able to get them a food parcel. So whilst we don’t provide those extra services, we can signpost and tell other people where they are and let them know.”
Beyond the practicalities of safeguarding, though, is the chance to form positive, meaningful contact. “There’s so much joy; people are having really wonderful conversations,” said Herring. “One member told me, ‘It’s like we’ve known each other years, no topic is off-limits’.” The phone calls are “definitely a two-way street” for the volunteers too. “You get to start from scratch with somebody, and they don’t know all of your past and your history, or anyone to compare you to but the person that they meet on the phone in front of them, and I think that’s quite powerful as well.”
Cliff and Stephen were two of the first people to be matched by the service. “I’m very much a one-to-one person, as I like to meet people to understand them, but obviously we can’t do that,” said Cliff, 66, who was matched at the beginning of April. “So, it’s taken maybe a little bit longer, but we certainly seem to be, like, proper friends now, joking with each other and things that normal friends do.” Stephen, meanwhile, couldn’t be happier with the pairing. “Right from the very beginning, I felt as though I’d known him a long time, and we get on like a house on fire. I feel we wouldn’t be lost for words if we went out for dinner together, there wouldn’t be awkward silences.”
For Cliff, who’s been volunteering with ODL for four years throughout his retirement, going “back to basics” on the phone is a reminder of a whole section of society who are excluded from the digital world. “Sometimes, just before I phone, I think ‘what am I going to talk about today?’” he said. “But then as soon as you start talking, it just flows. You chat about what they’ve done for jobs, where they’ve lived, because obviously everyone’s had different experiences.”
Although the majority of telefrienders are new to the service, most volunteers who were visiting Opening Doors members in their homes prior to lockdown have now also moved to telephone. The service has become a “lifeline” for Shirley, 59, after having an operation and losing her partner of 38 years last year. “I can’t put it into words how good it’s been for me,” she said of her volunteer Lydia, who she connected with in August 2019. “It’s just a fantastic thing, especially for someone like me who’s totally housebound. It’s a lovely thing to have once a week.” (Shirley’s name has been changed for her privacy.)
Lydia, 36, came to ODL as an ally to the older LGBT+ community. “The stuff that I’ve got to know about Shirley, and what she’s overcome and survived, is such an inspiration to me,” she said. “We talk about all sorts of things; her family, my family, our lives, our history, and even hopes for the future.” Though her weekly meet-ups have paused for the time being, her friendship with Shirley has strengthened during lockdown. “Now we talk a couple of times in the week and have more of a catch-up. But over the year, it’s got deeper and she shares that much more with me.”
Being able to talk openly about her grief has helped Shirley enormously, too. “I can talk about [my late wife] whenever I feel like it, she always listens and cares about what I’m saying. She’s always there to chat to about anything at all. She’s a very open-minded girl, so that’s all that matters.”
As restrictions around the world begin to ease, the social isolation that many people have experienced for the first time looks to be relatively short-lived. But for many older LGBT+ people, loneliness is part of everyday life, which is why ODL has launched a crowdfunding campaign to support more isolated people through telefriending, and to expand the service across the U.K. “We’ve all experienced a sample of what these guys that are locked away week after week go through,” said Cliff. “But it really drives home when you start talking to the ODL members and you think about what they’re having to go through.”
With social isolation now making headline news, Lydia hopes intergenerational friendships will become more commonplace. “For a lot of the older LGBT+ members, they’ve really been through a hell of a lot, and the fact that they’re still wanting to connect with people, bridge friendships, and have companionships is truly a testament to who they are.”