Our work became even more important due to COVID-19 – the story of Pasawat Sakulpanich
Updated: May 17
By Marte Hellema, Youth Co:Lab
Accepting yourself can be a difficult journey. Pasawat Sakulpanich or Tae went through the process as he came to terms with his sexuality. Together with his friend Palis Pisuttisarun or Fresh, he used his experience to establish Prism Chat, an anonymous online safe space to support those struggling with their identity. In less than two years it gained tens of thousands of users. And Tae is only 19.
Tae was born and raised in Bangkok. He is studying at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Online for now, due to COVID-19. He is excited for the future. But this was not always the case.
‘When I was younger, I sought help online. Because when you are not completely out yet, you have to privately seek help. And I realized how damaging that was for my mental health because of the homophobia prevalent on the Internet. People spreading hurtful comments that were very hard not to take personal at that age, especially when these comments were what I feared most,’ shares Tae.
Then Tae met Fresh, who would become the co-founder of Prism. They were both reserved about their sexuality, feeling isolated from society because they feared they would not be accepted. Talking to each other, they felt understood.
‘When I found that connection with Fresh, we realized the support we have for each other is really powerful. And we wanted to bring the same support online, to communities who might not have the privilege of finding someone who is also LGBTIQ+ or someone who fully supports them.’
They started by openly discussing their own journey of coming out. As their own target audience, they brainstormed what support they would have liked to receive. They wanted to create a community, a safe and welcoming space where people could feel involved, engaged, and seen. Anonymity would need to be a central feature. And they wanted to reach as many people as possible.
In the summer of 2019 Prism Chat went live.
Prism is an online platform which utilizes chatrooms to create safe spaces. Visitors can join as listeners or as speakers. A listener is a person more confident with their sexuality or gender identity, or an ally. They give support, gentle advice, or guidance. A speaker is seeking support or someone to listen to them.
From the beginning they faced challenges. There was backlash from their school, which insinuated Prism violated student safeguards, an issue which was addressed by the founders of Prism. Tae also had to face some personal roadblocks.
‘It was honestly quite scary at first. Not only because we were starting something quite big, but because it was real, we had to come to terms with ourselves quick before we could go forward. It was a process of accepting ourselves as well as growing a social enterprise.’
They invested heavily in social media campaigning. They also added features to make Prism educational and uplifting by sharing positive news and inspiring discussion threads.
In less than a year they hit 10,000 users.
‘I was just really grateful, but also really afraid. This is a lot of people. I am also a listener on Prism myself. So, I get to hear a lot of real stories and connect with people. It is just so surreal to be able to create such a big support platform.’
To generate income, they decided to use their site and social media channels to initiate collaborations with small LGBTIQ+ businesses. Brands can promote their products on Prism in exchange for a small percentage of the profits.
Along the way, a friend from UNDP told Tae and Fresh about the call for applications for Youth Co:Lab, a project co-led by UNDP and Citi Foundation. Eager to ensure their startup had a strong foundation, they decided to sign up.
‘The whole process was really inspiring and informative. You get to meet so many new people, who provide feedback on your ideas. And whilst I was giving feedback to other, different teams, I started to realize the feedback I could give to Prism, to myself.’
The experience helped them further expand their business, especially through strengthen their online marketing.
They also had to address safety concerns. Chatrooms feature an alert and a block button that people can use in cases of intrusive, disrespectful, or inappropriate conversations or to ring the alarm if they are concerned about the well-being of someone they are talking to. In case of the former, a chat administrator will be allowed by the user to review the conversation, and if needed a person might be suspended. While with the latter, a person will be directed to professional emergency services that can offer appropriate support. Listeners are also provided with a manual, which gives them tips on how to support someone in need.
Additionally, Prism features an algorithm which detects homophobic speech or text. An automatic response pops up when such language is detected and ultimately a user might be red flagged if it happens multiple times.
Just as Prism was gaining traction, COVID-19 hit. Like many, Tae did not know how it was going to impact them. But soon it became evident that Prism was more in demand than ever.
‘We saw a spike in users during COVID-19 because people were feeling more isolated. And we also realized that some people when they are trapped at home, they might be trapped in homophobic families. So, our work became even more important during COVID-19.’
At the end of 2020, Prism was nearing 30,000 users.
‘We did not expect it to become this big. I just wanted to form a safe space on the Internet and be kind of like a bubble. But we realized that forming a bubble would not get us very far and the real solution to the problem is leading widespread acceptance of the LGBTIQ+ community. So, we started to do a lot more advocating, educating about and normalizing the LGBTIQ+ community. It is like a big part of what we do now.’
Most of their users come from the UK, the USA and Canada, as well as Thailand and Singapore, mostly English-speaking countries. So, making their site in other languages will be the next step. Another dream is to develop the site into an App.
‘I just want Prism to reach as many people as we can. We just want everyone who is still struggling, confused, or questioning to be on Prism. And obviously I hope that one day society will reach a point where Prism is no longer needed. But till then, we will do as much as we can.’
Co-led by UNDP and Citi Foundation, Youth Co:Lab establishes a common agenda for countries in Asia-Pacific to empower and invest in youth so that they can accelerate the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through leadership, social innovation and entrepreneurship. Read more about Youth Co:Lab here.