Thiago Pontes on transcending labels and staying true to ourselves

Interview by Beatriz Silva

Photography by Jack Love

Thiago arrived in London on 17 December 2018, “first time I felt cold in my life”, he told me. The freezing wind that stings the face and that he felt for the first time on that day outside Heathrow Airport came with the realisation that he had made it: “This is it; I am here,” Thiago thought to himself. But on that day, he couldn’t have imagined that he would not return to Brazil, his home country, from what was meant to be a short stay in the UK.

Throughout his time at LSE, Thiago has been a source of inspiration for many of us, someone who we look up to and look for when battling with our own internal struggles but also to share and celebrate our achievements. As his friend, I have had the privilege of witnessing his journey in London, and to grow with him as we learned that staying kind and true to ourselves is the only prerequisite to self-fulfilment and to succeed at this university, whatever that might mean. If you don’t know him yet, then you are in for an interesting read – I promise.

When Thiago travelled to London in 2018, he was hoping to take a break from his undergraduate studies in Goiania, a city in the Central-West region of Brazil, where he grew up. Although he had already completed a full year of an International Relations degree at home, and he enjoyed the university and the friends he made there, Thiago couldn’t help but feel like he was living a life that wasn’t his: “I didn’t have any sort of prospects. I was doing IR in a tiny city, where no one speaks English. There are no tourists, there is nothing to do… I was living day by day… By mid-2018 I started to experience low mood and depression.” Thiago knew that his anxiety was to a great extent explained by his long struggle to navigate life in a conservative and deeply Catholic society as he grew conscious of and explored his sexual identity. “In a way, I felt safe in church, because that way people didn’t ask me much…but the older I got the more difficult it started to become to deal with these conflicting worlds.” As a result, when his biological father, who was at the time in London, offered him the chance of joining him for a few months to take an English course, Thiago jumped at the opportunity.

The first months in London, however, were not all they were cracked up to be. Even though Thiago grew up in a privileged environment within the Brazilian context, with a nice house and family holidays, in the months leading up to enrolling in LSE, Thiago lived in a completely different socioeconomic situation. After his arrival, he soon realised that his father could not afford to pay for an English course. He was now living in south London in a precarious situation, and one he had never encountered before in his life. Instead of returning to Brazil, Thiago decided to stay in London for a bit longer and try his luck in the city. He got a job as a waiter and started working over hours to save money to take an English language exam. Without any sort of expectations, he also applied to study at UK universities at undergraduate level. In what was nothing short of a shocking turn of events, Thiago was accepted to study International Relations at LSE.

Already in London, he attended the offer holders’ day in April. As if he had been parachuted into an alternative reality, he was confronted with the stark contrasts between his life and that of other prospective students. To begin with, LSE was located in a different London than the one Thiago had experienced. Speaking limited English, he tried his best to integrate into this exciting yet utterly unfamiliar new world. “I could barely understand what was going on, not gonna lie.” Whilst other students discussed what other options they were considering, Oxbridge interviews and UCL offers, Thiago was holding onto his one opportunity that still felt like a pipe dream. “I had heard so much of this university, and I came, I stepped in, and everything was so beautiful… I could not believe that this was me and this was happening, and that was so important because it gave me so much hope. My situation up to that point hadn’t changed. In fact, it didn’t change until the first day of uni. I lived with my dad and my brother in a single bedroom until I went to my accommodation.”

The sense of achievement Thiago felt from getting accepted to study at this university and of, simultaneously, being out of place, was magnified during freshers’ week: “[In the first week,] people were decorating their bedrooms and I couldn’t go up to them and say ‘hi, my name is Thiago, this is the first time that I have a bedroom to myself in a year and a half and I couldn’t be happier’.” All the stories people share about themselves when they meet for the first time, where they are from, where they travelled during their gap year – Thiago never felt at ease to tell his. So, to fit in, he learned to simplify and cut out the pieces of his story that could make others uncomfortable during a first interaction: “Yeah, I’m from Brazil, yeah grew up and studied there, I was on a gap year working for a few months, and now I am here and everything is fine.” The past year had changed his outlook and perspective about the world, but Thiago didn’t know yet how to put it into words. For most of his first year, he was not sure whether he could even afford to stay enrolled at the university and considered interrupting his studies to save money. If it wasn’t for the support offered by his department – Social Policy after he switched degrees – he might have had to.

Being the LGBTQ+ officer during 2020/2021 is what Thiago is known for around campus, with tremendous merit. In his role, Thiago liaised with high ranks of the university to increase support for students, made the LGBTQ+ guide, collaborated with countless societies to raise awareness and educate the student body on various issues, including by giving interviews to The Beaver. He learned invaluable lessons in the process, particularly about respecting everyone regardless of their views. In the situation he was in, Thiago would have achieved little if he had chosen to turn his back on the people who talked to him in a patronising tone or treated him with disrespect. “We are very easily cancelling people…but I can fundamentally disagree with you and still respect you as a human being, and we are going to continue working together. At uni, it’s easy: you disagree with a friend in a class, you call him an asshole, and leave. I couldn’t do that. Sometimes these people worked for LSE…I needed to go back the next week and have a meeting with them again.”

Looking back, however, he does regret some of the work he accepted to do as LGBTQ+ officer: “Some of them [Insta story takeovers, educational sessions] – I think it was very tokenistic, especially societies that only contacted LGBT officers during Pride Month, or Black people in Black History Month.” When Thiago did Instagram takeovers and people asked questions he was happy to do so, but “as a society, you should have educated your public first, so that then I can come and answer some questions or talk about my experience. But there was none of that. It’s the labour of Black people educating the white ones… Back then I didn’t see what was happening.”

Not everyone’s experience at university is the same: “If you are a Muslim or religious, what do you do during freshers’ [week]? If you are a little bit different from the standard LSE student, you probably faced similar experiences of feeling a bit lost and trying to fit in. The way I coped was by pretending.” But Thiago is past that phase now and has decided to no longer hide the parts of himself that might seem to others complicated and messy. “I will not ask anyone to please understand me, but I am going to live my true self… I will no longer sit and pretend: if I don’t have money, then I don’t have money, and I can’t go to your social. And I will not think less of myself.”

After three years at LSE, Thiago is grateful for all the ups and all the downs, the triumphs as well as the failures, that together made his time at university. “I feel honoured that people remember [that he was LGBTQ+ officer]. I’m the gay officer, but I am also the Brazilian that has never been to Rio; I am also the someone with a messed-up class experience; I am also racially ambiguous… I am more than just one thing.” To accept that we are many, and often contradictory things at the same time, can be difficult to reconcile but also rather liberating. Today, Thiago is transcending the labels that have been imposed upon him his whole life. Most of all, he is someone who has chosen to stay true to himself regardless of what happens next. “From now on, I will try to prioritise myself… I hope LSE was enough of a challenge that showed me that yes, I can achieve many things, but it was also a battle, always grinding, always something else to achieve. I want to be kind to myself…because I did it. We did it. We should take a step back and be proud of what we did. We are almost there.” It takes incredible bravery to embrace who we are completely, but if Thiago can do it, then so can we.

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