LGBTQI organisation London Friend has been serving the capital for fifty years. Formed in the aftermath of the legislation which, in 1967, partially decriminalised sex between men, it served an important purpose: to formulate a distinct community and then, identify and serve its needs. Through the years, it has navigated the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s which disproportionately impacted gay and bisexual men, alongside the introduction of Section 28 in 1988 which criminalised the “promotion of homosexuality”. Books so much as hinting at LGBTQI issues were swiftly removed from library shelves across the UK, and the queer community censored. Amid the battles the LGBTQI community has faced, London Friend has endured.
“London Friend is a charity working to improve the health and wellbeing of LGBTQ+ people. We started in 1972, and the organisation was formed by people coming together to provide the kind of support that LGBTQ+ people needed then but wasn’t available from mainstream services”, explains CEO Monty Moncrieff MBE. “It was just a few years after the partial decriminalisation of sex between men in 1967. It was the early stages of people having a public identity as an LGBTQ+ person, and it was a case of people coming together to provide support back to their own communities.”
Monty has had a colourful career, having worked with both the LGBTQ+ helpline Switchboard and the Department of Health. “I joined in 2011, and I always knew that I wanted to work in the LGBTQ+ sector. I was with Switchboard for almost 10 years, and then I got a job in a drug and alcohol treatment service, the purpose of which was to develop an LGBTQ+ service within that. I set up a service that London Friend now runs called Antidote. I went off to work for the Department of Health for a year, managing a national programme on LGBTQ+ equality. And then, the job came up at London Friend, and I went for it. In that time, the Antidote project had moved from being managed by Turning Point to being managed by London Friend. I found myself coming full circle back to a project I’d set up in 2002”, he says.
Drugs and alcohol
“When I became Chief Executive ten years ago, it was really important to me to honour the roots of the organisation. We’re still very heavily volunteer-led, and it feels as though we’re still working at some of the most needed health areas that our community has”, says Monty. Disseminating support on mental health, sex, drugs, alcohol and more, London Friend has adapted post-pandemic, providing a combination of in-person and online support groups designed to navigate the intricacies of identity. From its LGBTQ+ Friday Drop In to its women-specific group Changes, it operates primarily from its centre on Caledonian Road, North London.
Over the years, London Friend has adapted its services to suit the needs of the LGBTQ+ community. Perceiving a pattern amongst the sexual behaviour of gay and bisexual men, it was one of the first organisations to provide support on chemsex. London Friend defines it as “sexual activity mostly between men while under the influence of drugs, often taking place with one or multiple sexual partners”, citing crystal meth, mephedrone and GHB as the three main drugs associated with this practice. “We started to see it happening around 2008 or 2009. We experienced a very distinct change in what people were bringing into the services, the things they were telling us and the drugs they were using. We adapted our services to support the different needs that people were bringing in. We realised that we couldn’t just do a drug treatment intervention. We had to do it in the context of sexual behaviour”, Monty says.
“It’s quite remarkable that we are still here 50 years later. It’s testament to the fact that we’re still needed as an organisation. We want to celebrate the impact of the work that everyone’s done over the past 50 years and the contributions that our volunteers have made. We want to tell real-life stories – we know of stories where people met at our coming out groups or our social groups, and they’re still in relationships today.”
Planning a year-long celebration, London Friend has big plans for 2022. “We’re going to be working towards a history project in the summer, and we’re currently recruiting a team of volunteers as we’re going to go out to our archives to highlight items to bring the history of our organisation together. We’re also going to have a year-long celebration. We don’t have a date that we were formed as a group – we have the date we were formed as a formally constituted organisation and as a charity, but not actually as London Friend the group. So, we thought we’d use that as an opportunity to celebrate all year long.”
“We’re also doing a project called 50 LGBTQ+ Londoners, and each week of the year, we’ll be showcasing a different person who has made a contribution to LGBTQ+ community life at some point during the last 50 years.” In platforming LGBTQI histories, London Friend seeks to honour ordinary queer and trans people in celebrating its 50th birthday. That speaks to the heart of its work as an organisation: may the next fifty years be even more colourful.