The New York Native

Charles L. Ortleb, Publisher
January 01, 1990
(volume 10, number 4, Issue 350)


Its Easier Than You Think to Start and Maintain
a Gay and Lesbian Community Hotline

by Robert Ben Mitchell

            At the end of the 1980's, it is good to reflect upon the achievements we have made as a community. Though we are still a long ways away from our shared dream of civil rights, there has been undeniable progress towards that goal this decade. While the Federal government's handling of AIDS represents the worst crisis we have endured since the holocaust against homosexuals in World War II, we have paradoxically achieved new heights in personal and social freedom: the March on Washington and Massacheusetts' statewide anti-discrimination law top this list.

            Along the way, this decade, many new ideas and organizations have sprung up across the country to assist at the local, state, and national level of community organization. These groups are as varied in their structuring and functions as are the multifaceted Gay and Lesbian individuals within our diamond-precious community. Our determination to be free to choose with whom we will share our affection provides an intimate and absolute bond which brings us together. However, for each of us to integrate into the larger Gay and Lesbian community, we must still contend with the thousands of other factors which define our individual personalities. To facilitate this integration process, it is useful to have local referral and information centers specifically serving Gays and Lesbians.

            Resource centers within the Gay and Lesbian community come in a variety of forms. Often, in larger cities, walk-in community centers are available to provide a plethora of social and information services. While these centers usually provide the best resources and are an ideal model of an information center, they are often not practical for many smaller communities to open due to their expense, the time and organization required to develop and operate them, and their high degree of public exposure. However, on the other end of this vast spectrum of information and referral facilities lies the Gay and Lesbian Community Hotline: an inexpensive, easy to start, easy to maintain, and easy to access resource center.

            Gay and Lesbian Community Hotlines provide the benefit of easy access to information while reducing the risk often associated with homoaffectionals and public exposure. The hotline in Miami was begun in 1988 using a private home phone line, and was staffed from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. each week night. Along with information about local groups, organizations, and businesses which serve our community, a caller to the hotline could learn about special community events, and also receive referrals for doctors, lawyers, counselors, and other services. Ultimately, the most important thing the hotline offered in 1988 was a place anyone could call to talk anonymously and confidentially with someone who would care about the problems and issues they were facing as a homoaffectional person. Though the hotline was not staffed by licensed counselors, a point immediately stated to all callers, hotline staff were always willing to speak with a caller about personal issues, including coming out and lifestyles. During the twenty-two hours each day the hotline was not staffed, an answering machine with a three minute outgoing message would inform callers when the hotline was staffed and also provide some general information and referrals.

            The original Gay and Lesbian Community Hotline of Greater Miami was on-line for approximately one year. It was temporarily closed due to difficulty in finding staff persons willing to be at the hotline site during the designated nightly hours. During this brief hiatus, which lasted three months, the hotline answering machine referred callers to another local hotline, the Switchboard of Miami (305-358-HELP). The Switchboard is a much older and more experienced group, after which the Gay and Lesbian Hotline was patterned. They have continually been supportive of our efforts to establish a functional hotline here in Miami. Their assistance was indispensable while we were solving our hotline's staff shortage.

            The Gay and Lesbian Hotline was brought back on-line in early 1989, with a little help from Ma' Bell. We discovered the joy of call-forwarding. Through this optional phone company feature, we were able to offer potential staffers the ability to answer the hotline from their home phones. It was easy to recruit and train new hotline staff people once this convenience was added to our system. With the help of Radio Shack, we were able to take this concept one step further.

            Call-forwarding requires a dedicated individual to be at the hotline site each night, just before and after the line is staffed, to active and deactivate the call-forwarding feature. Though this may not seem like much of a bother, it was difficult to find a reliable volunteer who would be there on time every night, seven days a week, to take care of this responsibility. Thus, we went to Radio Shack and purchased their remote controlled call-forwarding device (catalog # 43-155). This unit allowed the person staffing the hotline to activate and deactivate the call-forwarding from their home phone. The device cost about $100.00, and required two phone lines to operate: one for the hotline and one to operate the remote activated call-forwarding device. Though it may not be financially feasible for someone just starting a hotline to install two phone lines for this purpose, we were lucky to have both lines already available where our system was located.

            All went well with this arrangement for approximately three months. Our staff people were reliable and competent at their tasks of informing, referring, and talking to callers. It was at this point, however, when someone asked, "Why aren't we on-line twenty-four hours a day?"

            Given the difficulty we had finding reliable staff for two hours each night, the idea of staffing the hotline twenty-four hours a day quickly became a nightmare. It was, of course a reasonable request to make, as we provided a valuable community service which should ideally be available any time it was needed. However, given an all volunteer staff and funding, the logistical problems of a round-the-clock hotline were at best overwhelming. This issue became so profound and problematic, that after three months of smooth operation, it looked as if Miami's hotline would close once again. Luckily, this repeat termination of service was prevented by the intervention of several computer experts.

            The rumor of the hotline's second demise spread quickly through Miami's Gay and Lesbian community. As our fourth month of call-forwarding facilitated service was grinding to a slow and what seemed final end, we received many suggestions and ideas on how to "keep up the good work." Though most of the ideas proposed had already been considered and rejected by the staff, we were very touched by the outpouring and concern people were expressing for the hotline. Yet, just as things were looking their worst and we were preparing our farewell press releases, we realized that the key to our problem was actually the solution we were looking for. Our goal was to provide a twenty-four hour information-referral service, yet our problem was our inability to find people to staff the phone line round-the-clock.

            Our solution was to computer automate! As staff people were the problem, the solution was to create a system which did not require them.

            The Gay and Lesbian Community Hotline of Greater Miami had been on line for eighteen months at this point. During this time we had learned many lessons concerning the operation and maintenance of such a resource center. Each lesson carried its own unique transitions concerning the upgrade of both personnel and equipment. While the complete computerization of our hotline was certainly the most expensive of these lessons, it was by far the most beneficial to both the callers and the system operators. Using a single IBM XT PC compatible computer and a special computer card which handles phone operations, we can now provide information and referrals twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week, without having the logistical problems of staffing the hotline on- or off-site. For approximately $1600.00 capital investment and $75.00 monthly maintenance, this type of system can be easily duplicated anywhere in the United States. The hotline currently consists of the following items, the actual cost of which will vary from area to area (see box):


            It is easy to see from these figures that, depending on the prices in your area, the average start-up capital for a hotline is approximately $1600.00. This is for a single line system which does not use call-forwarding nor need the remote activation-deactivation device. The special answering machine computer board and software package is sold by The Complete PC (1-800-634-5558). The computer components are easy to assemble, and most computer dealers will be happy to install the system hardware and initialize the computer software for you.

            This computer system can remain on-line twenty-four hours per day, consuming very little electricity with the monitor off. With a 20 megabyte hard drive, it can hold up to ninety minutes of information in multiple categories. Our current hotline has about forty minutes of information divided into thirteen categories and a main greeting. The system can be operated by anyone calling from a standard touch-tone telephone (some pay phones do not use standard touch-tone frequencies). The caller accesses any category of information by dialing that categories number (ours run from 11 through 23) and then pressing the pound key (the tic-tac-toe like key below the nine key). A caller may jump between categories at any time the hotline is operating, may leave a message at the end of any category (after which the hotline hangs up), or dial nine to leave a message while in the middle of any information category. Currently, the Gay and Lesbian Community Hotline of Greater Miami has the following information categories:

            11#      Listing of the Current Hotline Categories.

            12#      Political Issues.

            13#      Special Events.

            14#      Miami's Gay & Lesbian Community Center.

            15#      Lesbian Contact Numbers.

            16#      Gay & Lesbian Literature & Local Publications.

            17#      AIDS, AA, NA, and Associated Services.

            18#      Social and Support Groups.

            19#      Doctors, Lawyers, & Counselors.

            20#      Help Wanted.

            21#      Gay Bars in Northern Miami.

            22#      Gay Bars in Southern Miami.

            23#      Gay Bars on Miami Beach.

            There is no charge to callers who access the hotline, and there is no charge to be listed in any of the hotline categories. This service is supported entirely by private donations from Gay and Lesbian individuals within our community.

            On a monthly basis, the hotline costs an average of $75.00 to maintain. We have an two optional white page listings, hand out about 1,000 business cards per month, and send out twenty press releases twice per month. Expenses such as business cards and press releases to local groups, organizations, businesses, and the media are to be considered optional. To make it easier for others to find you, we do advocate enough listings with your local phone company to be located under the following headings in the white pages and, therefore, directory assistance: Gay and Lesbian Community Hotline; Gay Community Hotline; Lesbian Community Hotline.

            We are also listed in most national and international Gay and Lesbian travel guides. These listings are free, and the guide books will have the addresses you may write to for such listings.

            There are two major disadvantages to implementing the above system. The first is that callers are not greeted by a live person with whom they can talk. We have circumvented this problem by listing the local Switchboard of Miami and the National Gay and Lesbian Crisis Line (1-800-767-4297) at the beginning of our main greeting. Both offer confidential and anonymous over-the-phone crisis counseling twenty-four hours a day. This provides valuable information to those needing counseling and to those who do not have a touch-tone phone.

            The second problem associated with our system concerns the special computer hardware-software answering machine. This is the heart of the system, and it continually monitors the phone while on-line to listen for the caller dialing touch-tone selections. Unfortunately, it also listens to the outgoing message (I don't know why), and it turns out that people are capable of generating these touch-tones hidden within the harmonic frequencies of the human voice. Thus, without realizing it, you can record touch-tones within your information which will trigger the system to stop and change categories or even hang up. This can be very disconcerting to callers. We have found that this is avoidable by recording the information categories using a remote phone and the remote operation features of the computer answering machine. Apparently, phone line transmission filters assist in reducing these inadvertent hidden touch-tones in the human voice. Also, we double check all recorded announcements by calling the hotline from two different remote sites to verify there are no problems. While this can slow down the process of putting new information on the hotline, we are able to make regular updates on a weekly basis.

            Through the above computer automation, we are now able to provide Miami with up to date information about our community. It is helpful to those both within the community who want to learn more about their fellow homoaffectional brothers and sisters, and is also of value to heteroaffectionals who are friends of our community. This kind of resource center provides a discreet, confidential, and anonymous way of opening what for too long has been a closed door.

            We strongly recommend this system to anyone interested in providing a relatively inexpensive, easy to operate and maintain, valuable resource service for their local Gay and Lesbian community. We will assist those interested by providing guides on organizing and structuring information categories, including the templates we use for our information messages. For more information please write to the Gay and Lesbian Community Hotline of Greater Miami, c/o Bob Mitchell, 694 N.E. 76th Street, #10, Miami, Florida, 33138.

(Bob Mitchell is author of The Syphilis Disaster, which was serialized in the Native, issues #302-307, as well as Director and of the Miami Gay and Lesbian Hotline and Center.)