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Teenagers. They’re angsty, awkward, and sometimes angry, often for good reason. Teens are the chronically misunderstood, the frequently patronized, and the often ignored of our society. Their youthful ambition and adolescent, singular strength of mind will soon propel them (and, whether we like it or not, us too), into a future where they, at last, are the ones in charge. They represent the imminent future, and yet older people often do not know how to talk to teens—whether about their emotional lives, or merely what they want for supper. 

Our group: Kamil Kuhr, Kenny Martin and Larysa Panasyk
Photo Credit: Alicja Szulc

These contradictions and difficulties of teenage life hit queer teenagers especially hard. In the input phase of the 2018 Warsaw Humanity in Action Fellowship, we had a session with Slava Melnyk from Kampania Przeciw Homofobii (Campaign Against Homophobia, Polish abbreviation KPH) that illuminated some of these problems—problems that are specific to the queer teen community, and so often overlooked, especially in Poland. 

Indeed, according to a study done by KPH, 76% of queer teenagers are exposed to verbal and/or physical abuse in schools in Poland (Tęcza Pod Lupą). Such experiences can lead to low self-esteem, solitude, anxiety, depression, and suicidal attempts (Sytuacja Społeczna Osób LGBTA w Polsce. Raport za lata 2015-2016). At first, we felt very overwhelmed. What could we hope to do in two weeks to improve such a dire situation?

We knew, first of all, that we had to find a new way to talk to teens—traditional educational and affirming support materials for LGBTQ youth are great, but in our view, often fail to most effectively reach the audience they supposedly target. Our first thought was something a bit provocative: what about distributing condoms at high schools and universities, along with information about how condoms are for everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity? From here, we came to the hashtag which would come to unite our campaign: #SexIsEqual. Sex, we feel, really is equal, and it might be just the thing through which to talk to teenagers in a funny, approachable, and impactful way not just about sex itself, but also about inclusivity, sexual and gender diversity, and reducing homo- and transphobia. 

Yet one lingering problem remained: actually talking to teens about sex. We found our solution to this conundrum (of which any parent of a teen is acutely aware) in a session with staff from Wandlee, a Polish startup that produces chatbots. A chatbot, we realized, might be the ideal way to provide teens a safe, inclusive, un-intimidating space to get their questions about sex, sexuality, sexual education, and gender identity answered. With our #SexIsEqual bot, teens don’t have to talk directly to an adult; they can access accurate and inclusive information in an entertaining and approachable way, all from the comfort of their Facebook Messenger application. The bot will also be available in three languages (Polish, English, and Ukrainian), both to make it accessible to foreigners in Poland and to support our hopes of scaling the project to other countries. 

Design of the t-shirt by Aleksandra Sobczyk

As we reached pitch night, our broader campaign strategy had come together: we had developed a prototype chatbot scheme, a preliminary graphic design, a hashtag, and promotional copy materials. We were excited by the feedback we received from actual teens both during the testing of the chatbot and at pitch night. Going forward, we plan to implement an initial event at SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw in October 2018, where we will distribute promotional “goodie bags” which will include information about the chatbot, a condom, and fun promotional items related to the campaign. We hope, eventually, to start a conversation about sex and inclusivity in Poland and beyond, and to use novel sexual education methods to promote a safer and more happy world for all teens, queer and non-queer alike. #SexIsEqual, and so are all of us—and we should treat one another that way.

By Kamil Kuhr, Kenny Martin and Larysa Panasyuk, participants of the 2018 Humanity in Action Warsaw Fellowship


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