A Smalltown Boy in the Big Society


I’ve started volunteering for a local LGBT charity. It’s a long time since I was an active volunteer, and it’s difficult volunteering now without thinking about Cameron’s awful ‘Big Society’  concept.

I’ve actually ‘volunteered’ for most of my adult life in one way or another. And in a week when London Lesbian & Gay Switchboard is celebrating its 40th year with congratulations from The Queen (no, actually HER, not just one of us sitting in a bar saying ‘well done’) – the first time that she’s been seen to back an LGBT organisation in her 62 long years as a monarch – I’m wondering about the impact of volunteering on LGBT communities.

It used to be seen as part of ‘community building’. With so few commercial gay organisations around, it was expected that an out gay man or woman would be spending their time ‘supporting’ their community ‘in solidarity.’ Perhaps this is a true meaning of ‘big society’. Defending smaller societies in the big outside world. I started doing LGBT volunteering on a helpline in Aberystwyth after coming out myself. It was a small, isolated community, and it was the start of the AIDS crisis and the right-wing backlash against the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality. It seemed obvious that I should donate time and energy because it was also obvious what I would be getting out of it – an identity, a sense of community and pride, as well as making new friends/lovers. It would have seemed selfish and churlish not to.

My relationship with volunteering has changed over the years. At one point, I worked for a charity and was paid to support volunteers doing their (unpaid) work. If there was a value to the work I was doing, why not theirs? It’s an argument dominating the two areas I now work in – writing and counselling. Why should counsellors or writers be expected to work without payment? For many, it’s a way to network, gain experience and enter ‘the profession.’ Which is true to a point – until people/organisations stop respecting the field because ‘they can get a volunteer’ to do it.

At an interview for my volunteering post I was asked what I wanted to get from it. I think that’s an important question to ask. Volunteering isn’t simply a selfless task. It involves time, money, effort. And people have many conscious/subconscious reasons for volunteering – some of them warm and giving, some of them coming from a more selfish/self centred place. All of which is fine, as long as they can be recognised. I never trusted a volunteer who told me they wanted to volunteer because they ‘wanted to help people’. It always seemed vague and self-deluding. Help people? How/why? Do they even want your help?

Voluntary organisations in the ‘Big Society’ age struggle with funding, especially if it’s LGBT now Everything Is OK. It’s  not, even if things are undoubtedly better, at least in Britain. My Facebook page is littered with stories of celebrities ‘coming out’ after suicide attempts, or outrage at a gay kiss on Coronation Street. Social media is full of global campaigns highlighting homophobia. A poster boy for Stonewall’s Marriage Equality campaign has declared Gay Saunas and bathhouses should be closed because  – well, his reasons vary from giving us a bad image to spreading AIDS and STIs. It’s all a bit grubby, apparently. In essence, it’s the mistaken belief that Everything Is Alright Now. It smacks a little of unremembering, or just pissing on, a history of defiance, activism and support. What happened to ‘community’ and ‘belonging’?

During my volunteer training, sitting quietly at the end of a bookshelf, was a book I’d written many years ago on the history of the ‘homosexual terrorist’ group OutRage. It seemed like it was winking at me throughout the evening, reminding me both of who I’ve been and why I was there.  A friend this week saw a video of me demonstrating at a ‘Kiss In’ in Trafalgar Square in 1991. It was at the BFI, so I now feel I’m some kind of archive material, along with outdated ideas like activism, gay community – and volunteering. If only homophobia was so firmly stuck away in the past.

So the idea of volunteering might be a bit old-hat. Except it all changes when you get that first call or meet that person coming out for the very first time. When the world seems new and different and frightening and exciting. And you need a little hand along the way to face  the Big Society.

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