Small and compact Matthew Halliday and big and bearish Monty Moncrieff are a study in contrasts in many ways, but both are equally passionate about the work of LGBT charity London Friend, which in 2012 celebrates its 40th anniversary.
I met with Halliday (London Friend’s chief executive) and Moncrieff (head of services) on a warm day in London, just near the offices of London Friend in Kings Cross. Caledonian Road isn’t awash with upmarket coffee options, but we found a nearby cafe and settled in to catch up on the plans for the 40th anniversary celebrations and what the future holds for the UK’s oldest LGBT charity.
London Friend was established in 1972. It’s worth reflecting on what life was like for gay men and lesbians at that time and why there was a need for an organization such as London Friend.
At that time there was little sense of LGBT community - while there was some collaboration between gay men and lesbians, it’s only in recent years that there seems to have been enough commonality between these different but equally vulnerable people to be able to describe them collectively as LGBT (even though, as Moncrieff points out, there are some ongoing tensions in this regard).
Leading much of the advocacy for legislative protection of gay men and lesbians during the early 1970s was a group called the Campaign for Homosexual Equality.
‘As the Campaign for Homosexual Equality was essentially a political group,’ explains Moncrieff, ‘they couldn’t apply for charitable status and London Friend was established to apply for the grants and funding required to meet the growing need for community-based services specifically tailored for gay men and lesbians.
‘Initially the primary role of London Friend was to provide a safe space where people who had these newly found legislative freedoms could socialize, get support and meet other people. In the early days services were provided via a telephone helpline and open access groups that utilized the London Friend premises.'
Halliday is keen that the charity’s anniversary celebrations recognize and celebrate the struggles and achievements of the last 40 years, but also reflects that: ‘In many respects, while so much has changed for gay men and lesbians, many of the issues that London Friend was set up to deal with remain just as relevant today.
‘For example, self-esteem continues to play a major role in people’s health and well-being. Someone experiencing low self-esteem is more likely to present with drug and alcohol issues, look for support through counseling, or may be more likely to engage in higher-risk activities that could compromise their sexual health.
‘While there have been huge advances in terms of legal protection for LGBT people, even the most confident person’s sense of self-worth can by impacted by lingering negative attitudes - whether that’s from religious groups, politicians, the media, family or community.’
Over the years London Friend has evolved to become London’s leading health and wellbeing charity supporting the LGBT community.
Recent milestones for the London Friend include the purchase of the organization’s premises in Kings Cross; and securing substantial funding from the UK’s lottery fund to sustain and develop Antidote (the UK’s only LGBT drug and alcohol service). Today the charity employes eight staff and has 100 committed volunteers.
Moncrieff explains that this means support for LGBT people at any stage where they may be feeling vulnerable - from first coming out, to sexual identify, gender identity, relationship problems, or drug and alcohol issues.
‘We’re really looking beyond tactical interventions to a broader sense of wellbeing - where people are at a vulnerable point in their life or have maybe lost their way, to helping them to regain their self-esteem and promote healthy living.’
Halliday concurs: ‘We’re very inclusive - we’ll work with anyone who is lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans. While there are obvious differences between these categories, the issues and sense of vulnerability are very similar.
‘Building our capabilities in relation to how we can help the trans community is particularly important to us and is one of our key priorities for the next three to five years. We expanded our services in the 80s to include services for trans people, and we’re now partners in a trans health and well-being service.’
Moncrieff supports the view that more could be done to enable London Friend to be seen as trans-positive: ‘A lot of people come to us for counseling and looking for the opportunity to talk about gender identity, what it means for them, and whether they’re ready to begin the transition journey, or express their identity in different ways. Ringing the London Friend helpline could be the first time that someone has spoken about their gender identity and then may progress from there.
‘We would like to offer some more structured support for people undergoing a gender transition, but it’s capacity that is holding us back. We need to find ways of utilizing our resources and better engaging with trans organizations.’
While building on the history and strength of the past, Halliday confirms that the charity is very much focused on the future and looking ahead to the next 40 years.
‘This is an exciting time for us - we’ve come a long way in the last few years, it’s no longer about day-to-day survival, we’ve got the capacity to think about what we want do in the long term as an organization.’
But sustainable funding is key to that forward planning:
‘At a time when there continues to be uncertainty about funding across the entire LGBT sector, it’s difficult to know where our sector will be or what it will look like in five years or even in just one year’s time,’ says Halliday.
‘At our AGM earlier this year we launched our 40th anniversary appeal - which will help us to raise an additional £40,000 ($62,000 €50,000) in 2012.’
‘By continuing to work with a strong base of regular donors, we can build a much more sustainable foundation for the continued work of London Friend.’