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Empathy was on the other end of the line at the Lesbian Switchboard

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's Friday, when we hear from StoryCorps. After years of collecting American stories, they keep finding new ones. The creator, Dave Isay, told me once that the stories just never repeat. You never get the same story twice. Now, with that in mind, consider the variety of stories you would hear as an operator on the Lesbian Switchboard. It ran for 25 years as a New York City helpline for gay women, fielding questions about everything from gay nightspots to worries about self-harm. If you called in the 1980s, volunteer Denise Tuite might have answered.

DENISE TUITE: The Lesbian Switchboard was located in an old school building. The room was a tiny room and there were no windows. It was very depressing-looking (laughter), to tell the truth. It was that old gray-green color they used to paint schools at that time, so it looked kind of dingy (laughter). But it was our place, you know, it was beautiful. Typical calls were, I'm coming to New York. What's the best bar for lesbians specifically (laughter)? But then every once in a while, you'd get somebody that would call and just want to talk, someone from Oshkosh, Wis., or something. Should I tell my parents, shouldn't I tell my parents? The suicidal calls we weren't permitted to take because we weren't trained for that. I had a few of those calls. Don't kill yourself. Don't be ashamed of yourself. Call this number. That's all we could say, really.

But I realized much later on, the switchboard was not only me helping other people, it was me helping me. My family was very close-knit - Brooklyn, Irish Catholic, you know, church every Sunday, go to Catholic school. And I started to realize I was gay when I was about 14. And believe it or not, at one time, I was really pretty (laughter) and I had a boyfriend, but I didn't want to be with him. And my mother, she wanted me at 16 to marry so I could get these feelings of being a lesbian out of me (laughter). She felt I was a bad influence on my younger brother and sisters. So when I graduated high school, my mother didn't want me in the house anymore, you know, and I was still, like, just a kid.

It would have been a hell of a lot easier for me to get married and have a family and be accepted by my mother and loved by my mother, which is something I wanted, but that wasn't who I was. The impact that the switchboard had on me, I realized that a lot of people out there are like me, and now I had to tell them it was OK, there's nothing wrong with you. That's what people wanted to hear. They wanted to hear that no matter where they were, no matter how isolated they were, there are other people like you. You know, you had to tell them that they weren't alone.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Denise Tuite at StoryCorps in New Jersey. The Lesbian Switchboard, now the LGBT Switchboard, still operates today. By the way, if you or someone you know may be considering suicide or is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Barry Gordemer is an award-winning producer, editor, and director for NPR's Morning Edition. He's helped produce and direct NPR coverage of two Persian Gulf wars, eight presidential elections, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and hurricanes Katrina and Harvey. He's also produced numerous profiles of actors, musicians, and writers.