Post submitted by Lily Jaeger, 2018 – 2019 London First Year Abroad program participant. Lily is studying International Affairs and British Studies.
Having lived in North Central Florida my entire life, which is arguably the bottom of the cultural ‘south’ in America, I was incredibly eager to get out and see the world. As a queer woman, I was even more eager to leave. That is why I not only chose to be a First Year Abroad Student but to be one in London. I wanted to find myself and become more comfortable with who I was before I continued my studies at the Tallahassee main campus. What a journey I ended up going on.
When I first got to London, since no one else had come from my hometown no one knew yet that I was queer. Being an FYA inherently gives you a fresh start, whoever and however you were in high school does not have to be who you are now in a foreign country about to start your university career. As someone who had a rough four years in high school, a fresh start was greatly needed. I was not as close to many of the students though as others were, which I thought was a result of the fact that I do not drink alcohol. Drinking, of course, was a favorite pass-time of many students since the legal drinking age is 18 in England. It was not until the end of the fall semester that I realized the truth. Clubs and pubs in England (and most likely elsewhere in the world) are often very straight and cis dominated and cultivate a culture that is not always the most welcoming to those in the LGBTQ+ community. The FSU London Study Centre created a very warm and accepting environment, so it was never any of the students that I had to worry about. It was the inherent vibe and community in the clubs and pubs that made me uncomfortable. That is not to say the English are awful homophobes, in fact I think I get along with them better than I do many Americans. However, some cultures have certain traditions that are so deeply entrenched in society that they are not even aware they are still there. The average study abroad student may not pick up on it, but as a queer person you pick up on situations that could be potentially harmful to you more than the average human. My ‘gaydar’ as it turns out also has a safety feature.
There are two important facts that I should mention at this stage: most of my close friends in high school were all LGBTQ+ in some fashion, and I did not go home over winter break. In fact, I have not visited home this entire year I have been away. Since I had such a close community around me for so long, being away from everyone for a year has been a hardship I honestly was not expecting. All things considered, I have been an incredibly independent person my entire life, so missing my friends as fiercely as I did made it hurt that much more. Since they had all either been LGBTQ+ or incredibly supportive of the community, a vacuum inside me had been created from that sudden lack of fellowship and support. Many other FYA’s will relate to needing to find oneself when they come abroad, regardless of the location chosen. Being an FYA essentially does this through baptism by fire. Being so far removed from your previous comfort zones and support groups truly forces you to figure out what in your life really suits you. By the time I realized the normal student coping method was not going to work for me spring semester had begun and I felt pressured by myself to discover the life that would help me become the best version of myself. This is when Les Misérables happened.
Anyone who knows me is almost certainly aware of my deep, longstanding love for Les Misérables. Somehow, it took almost 4 ½ months to actually see it on the West End. Understandably I was floored and sobbing already by the end of Act I. It was when I went to the stage door after the show that things really came to fruition. Getting to talk to the cast from the perspective of a theatre nerd about the technical side of the show was cool enough, but it was a conversation I had with a particular cast member that stuck with me the most. When they remarked that no other of my fellow students were with me, I reluctantly admitted that I was not close enough with any of them to be okay with them seeing how truly in love with theatre I am. This, of course, was an extension of my nervousness at anyone seeing who I truly was (i.e. me being queer).
The cast member seemed to understand what I really meant by my response and then and there informed me of my new home: The Theatre Cafe. The Theatre Cafe is a magical cafe on Shaftesbury Avenue and St. Martin’s Lane that celebrates all things theatre in the heart of the West End – London’s equivalent to Broadway. This is where I found my home away from home and, by extension, myself. Trying to force myself to enjoy the clubs and pubs was never going to work because that is just not who I am. I’m not saying everyone who goes to The Theatre Cafe is LGBTQ+, but theatre has a much more longstanding acceptance of those in the community. Whether it is singing along to soundtracks, educating the Brits on my favorite American theatre productions, or simply just enjoying some Defying Gravi-tea, I was slowly beginning to learn who I was and who I wanted to be moving forward. Not to say I could not have had a similar lightbulb moment somewhere on main campus, but the prolonged exposure to this community that being an FYA afforded me allowed me to come to terms with it at my own pace.
This several month-long period of self-realization and development culminated on July 6th, the day of London’s pride parade. Having never been to a pride parade before, I was not sure what to expect. I was especially nervous since not a month before on a vacation to Amsterdam I was attacked by a homophobic prick who broke three of my ribs. But this parade was a big reason I had decided to stay in London for the summer and not switch to a different location, so I was going to it no matter what. And in all honesty, it had felt my entire FYA experience had led up to and prepared me for this moment. Experiencing new cultures, getting to meet and learn the stories of people in a similar situation but with very different pasts from you, and celebrating what makes not only ourselves special but everyone else as well, it all felt so familiar and yet so new at the same time. Being there helped to fill the friend group shaped hole in my heart that my LGBTQ+ friends and high school had previously filled.
As I sit in my flat typing this out just days before I am scheduled to leave London for who knows how long, I cannot help but reflect on my time here. Being a queer FYA student in London helped me to not only find what in my life actually made me happy and fulfilled, but gave me the time and space to do so in a way that I did not feel rushed or pressured to do too much in too little time. Without this opportunity, I cannot say at all what kind of person I would be now going into my second year of university. Though, I would like to think that this experience has truly changed me for good and for the better.
For more information about the First Year Abroad and First Semester Abroad programs, visit our Freshman page.