I’ve been an operator for the LGBT National Hotline for almost a year now, and it’s been one of the most incredible experiences of my life.
People call our hotline for many reasons, like if they:
- are in crisis
- have questions about coming out
- have questions about being trans
- want resources in their area
- want safer sex advice
- just want to talk
Being there for callers on the hotline has made me a better listener with not only callers but also friends and partners.
You can support your community, too. Here are seven lessons from the hotline I use with my community and network.
Whether it’s affirming that it’s OK to be queer, trans, or both, affirmation is a powerful gift. Many callers don’t get that from anyone else. I know because they tell me.
I spent one call just reaffirming a caller’s gender identity over and over again, like a mantra, and they’d ask if it was too much to reaffirm them again. It was never too much.
It’s also never too much to use that same practice of repeated affirmation with friends and partners — to affirm who they are, or who they’re becoming, and their unquestionable worth.
Just as is happening around the country (as I know from the hotline), my queer and trans friends are experiencing increased levels of hatred and discrimination even in more “accepting” areas, and many more of my friends are struggling with suicidal thoughts.
In the face of that, there’s simply no limit to the positive reinforcement that I’m ready to provide to callers and friends.
Callers often ask if having certain feelings makes them gay, queer, or trans, and telling them that both orientation and gender identity are a spectrum can be an eye-opener.
Many callers are certain that they must either be straight or gay, cisgender or transgender — with nothing in between and no room for fluidity.
Letting them know it’s a spectrum, and that taking on the label of queer or trans is something they can use for themselves — if it’s something that feels good for them — can lead to the caller’s palpable relief.
It’s not saying they’re not queer or trans (or both!), but that they can feel free to encounter, explore, and engage with that on their own terms, not anyone else’s.
I also find myself telling friends that it’s OK not to know, whether it’s orientation or gender identity. Giving yourself space to reflect on it over time can be challenging but empowering.
As I myself have moved from identifying as “questioning” to lesbian to queer, I wish I had someone telling me about a spectrum and that not knowing was OK during my process. I now pay that forward with my callers and friends.
Sometimes callers just need to talk and will even preface the call with the fact that they just need someone to listen.
Letting them talk is so important, as often other people in their lives refuse to listen. One time a caller even asked me to cry with them. We just cried together, and that time was precious.
I also use this with friends. Before the hotline, I’d feel the urge to jump in, to try to give advice, to attempt to solve the problem myself. Now I know it’s just as, if not more, important to listen.
Active listening is an art, but it’s easy to cultivate if you dedicate the time.
As I’ve learned from the hotline, it’s about letting the speaker talk and making a small noise or affirming sound to let them know you’re listening, present, and taking in what they’re saying.
Sometimes it’s letting silence hang in case they’re thinking something through. But if the silence hangs too long, you can ask a question based on what they’ve said, such as asking what they might do for themselves.
Whether it’s carving out more space to think, reaching out to a support network, or breaking a pattern of suicidal thoughts through a distracting activity, asking what they might do can help them.
When callers share with me the types of discrimination, hatred, and rejection they’re facing — like slurs from parents or violence at the hands of strangers — I say (per my training and per my heart), “I’m so sorry, you don’t deserve that.”
It’s important to move from an “I’m sorry” to what the callers themselves deserve, with the callers as the subject of that sentence.
Everyone deserves respect and unconditional love. Reminding people of this almost always results in a positive reaction.
With friends and partners, I similarly try to move from my anger to my friends’ worth. My friends are the ones who are important and worthy of being lifted up.
Especially in situations where there’s no action step with respect to what they went through, focusing on what they deserve can be a way to reinforce their worth without minimizing what they’ve experienced.
Callers, as one might expect, often ask for direct advice: when to come out, if they should come out, who they should come out to, if they should leave a relationship, or if they should stay in a relationship.
On the hotline, we don’t give advice (with the exception of safer sex advice), so responses to direct questions might seem difficult.
But the hotline has trained me to respond with, “Your comfort and safety are most important.”
Thinking about comfort and safety helps callers put themselves first in the equation. It’s also helped me, as a queer person, to prioritize myself and encourage those in my network and community to do the same.
When I listen to friends talk about experiences and they ask me if they should take a certain action step, I bring it back to their comfort and safety and move from there.
Being on the hotline, we’re trained to name suicide openly if the caller seems to be showing signs of suicidal thinking or describing self-destructive behaviors that might indicate suicide. This has made me more open about discussing it with friends who may be struggling.
The hotline has also trained me to then gently inquire, which I do with both callers and friends, to find out if they:
- have a plan or have self-harmed already
- have anyone in their support network they can reach out to (including a suicide-specific hotline)
- can do anything to interrupt the thoughts, make their space safer, or get through the next set amount of time
Being trained in this area has also brought me some personal comfort. I’ve lost four friends to suicide in the past two years alone and nearly lost two more.
Knowing I can name it with callers and friends and at least ask a few questions to see if there’s anything that can be done has provided me with more healing than I can describe.
When people are eager to talk to me and come to me for support, I used to fear they might be offended or think I didn’t want to talk to them if at some point I suggested a therapist, counselor, or hotline.
But being on a hotline has made me eager to recommend hotlines, especially mine, because I know the training for operators is excellent.
And I know we’re encouraged to suggest looking up resources — including peer groups, therapists, and counselors — for callers after we’ve listened to them for a while, and that makes me more comfortable doing that with friends.
What’s good for callers is good for my friends. It makes me happy that I can provide healthy support for both a close friend or a queer person who’s feeling isolated — sometimes in the same day.
If you or others need someone to listen, call us or chat:
Vera Hannush is a nonprofit grants officer, queer activist, board president, and peer group facilitator at the Pacific Center (an LGBTQ center in Berkeley), drag king with the Rebel Kings of Oakland (the “Armenian Weird Al”), dance instructor, youth houseless shelter volunteer, operator on the LGBT National Hotline, and connoisseur of fanny packs, grape leaves, and Ukrainian pop music.