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A phone call away: the only all-ages national help line for GLBT Americans is seeing an uptick in calls in the wake of George W. Bush's reelection.

Shortly after Election Day, the Gay and Lesbian National Hotline received a call from a young man living in a state that had passed an anti-gay-marriage amendment. "Here's this person who is finally sticking his toes out of the closet a little bit, and then this happens," says the hotline's executive director, Brad Becker, who answered the call. "He just did not understand why he was being beaten up figuratively and whether these new laws might lead to him being beaten up literally."

The hotline has logged many similar calls since November 2. "I think the passage of these 11 anti-gay-marriage amendments highlights even further the need for the service we provide," says Becker. "It's a safe and supportive place for people to call and talk about the harsh realities they're facing every day, strictly confidentially."

The nonprofit service bills itself as the only all-ages national hotline for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people wanting to talk about any issue relating to their sexuality. The toll-free line is staffed by 60 trained volunteers in San Francisco and New York City, a diverse group ranging in age from 18 to 80 who provide peer counseling and referrals to local services.

"Those of us who live in places like New York City get spoiled," says hotline volunteer Roger Ricklefs. "There are endless resources here. That's not true everywhere. I got a call a while ago from a guy in rural Texas, and the closest group we could find for him that was at all relevant to his needs was 100 miles away."

Of the hotline's roughly 800 monthly calls, the majority are for peer counseling, and most of those are people dealing with coming-out or relationship issues. They come from an average of 45 states each month, many from the South and Midwest.

The volume of calls has also increased markedly in the last couple of years, partly due to the closure of local resources around the country. In 1995 the half dozen volunteers who went on to found the national hotline conducted a study that identified 150 local GLBT hotlines around the country. A repeat study earlier this year found only 100 left, and most of those were in larger cities. The national hotline is also forming a new program, the National Association of GLBT Hotlines, which will act as a clearinghouse for local lines around the country. Becker says, "Nothing replaces the benefit of being able to talk with someone fight in your own neighborhood. The national hotline is there for callers across the country, even as we work to strengthen hotlines at the local level."

Hotline volunteer Ricklefs recalls a recent call from a high school student: "After a long conversation, he finally said, 'I'm gay.' And then he said, 'Hey! I actually said it. This is the first time I've said it! It feels great to say this out loud.'" While the effect is therapeutic, the line is not meant to provide ongoing psychotherapy, nor is it a "chat line" or a sex line.

Ricklefs and fellow hotline volunteer Deborah Carroll recount other calls they've received: A very religious woman in the rural Midwest who, after being read a list of the gay and gay-friendly churches in Chicago, said, "That does it, I'm moving there"; a cross-dresser who was reassured to learn that many others shared his practice; a lesbian in despair over her partner leaving her--and whose mother eventually came in on the call. "It is such rewarding work," Carroll says. "I've been out since 1969, but I've still learned so much about our community from the hotline." Becker adds that almost all the volunteers "either remember how tough it was for them, or they feel lucky for having had it relatively easy--and they want to give back."

For its minimal budget, the hotline relies almost exclusively on small donations from individuals, and it has never received government funding. That means the line is not restricted in the issues it addresses.

"For many of our callers, this is the first time they've ever spoken to anyone about these issues. It's the first time they've spoken with an openly LGBT person. And it's the first time that anyone is going to tell them that their feelings are normal," says Becker. "We help people find a community that they didn't even know existed."

VanDeCarr is a freelance writer from San Francisco.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Community
Author:VanDeCarr, Paul
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 21, 2004
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