To Be Trans Is To Refuse Borders

feature image photo by Pallava Bagla / Contributor via Getty Images

In 2022, I brought my girlfriend daddy to my homeland. It was my first visit since the pandemic began, ending the longest gap in visits in my adult life. I’d never brought a partner to Kerala. I looked forward to seeing familiar places through her eyes and taking her places she wanted to go.

I let Sarah call me a girl, a woman, her girlfriend, and use she/her pronouns. My gender was relational and, with Sarah, I felt soft, fragile, and responsive. I flipped my hair so my side-shave was hidden under a bob. I introduced myself to strangers in my legal name, pronounced with Malayalam vowels. We held hands on the streets and, like the service bottom I became for her, I negotiated auto-rickshaws and ordered food. As my daddy, she scheduled our days and fucked me silly.

She heard me speak my language, listened to how I speak my own name in a different way, and received her name in a new way: Sah-rah instead of Say-rah. Sarah, a white fifth-generation New York Jew, was most excited to visit Jew Town. Kerala’s coast has long been a spice trading hub, drawing Jews and Muslims who visited, traveled upriver, and embedded themselves in village cultures across the land. My mother’s Kerala Christian tradition still celebrates Passover, tracing back to a Jewish lineage thousands of years ago, before St. Thomas converted Jews and Hindus in Kerala, back when Christianity was still a cult.

I’ve always felt strange talking about my family’s Christianity. It would be an easier, simpler narrative to say that we became Christian because of colonization, but instead, the history of my family connects to Arab and African sea trading from pre-colonial times. When I explain this to Americans, their eyes grow dull. Sometimes, it’s even hard for me to learn about and imagine a world that did not center European, American, or “Western” capitalist influences, desires, frameworks of the world. Memory for Indians, though, goes thousands of years back.

Jew Town was one enclave of Jewish culture in Kerala where Jewish people were welcomed and protected by various kings since at least the 4th century. We strolled through the neighborhood, took pictures of the iron window designs of the Star of David beside the Hindu swastika that was appropriated to create the more well-known Nazi symbol, and scrutinized shapes of menorahs sold in the various stalls. Halfway to the Synagogue, we went to the historic home of Sarah (Sah-rah) Cohen, called the Last Remaining Jew of Jew Town, and met the Muslim men who took care of her as she aged and who now carry on her embroidery practices. We bought delicate challah covers embroidered with grapes, candles, and Hebrew words to honor Shabbat.

We reached Paradesi synagogue, built in the 1500s. Hundreds of Chinese blue and white tiles blanketed the floor, a dozen ornate glass chandeliers dangled from the ceiling, red, green, blue, and white glass orbs hung from the back wall. Wooden pews lined the back of the synagogue, reminding me of the churches I prayed in as a child. Above, square panels adorned the ceiling with flowers in the center of each panel, a design I’d most often seen in old Hindu temples. One wall of the synagogue was shared with a neighboring temple.

Our visit to Jew Town felt like an embodiment of something I’d mostly felt: the syncretic spirituality of India changes all religions that touch it; all religions in India weave together to form a kind of spiritual tapestry. Not like metaphors of America, of melting pots or salad, but more like the title of V. S. Naipul’s book, A Million Mutinies Now.

In January this year, I visited the synagogue without Sarah. I sat in a pew along the edge and watched shards of glass dangle from the chandeliers. I thought about a Jenn Shapland line from My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, “I am more convinced than ever that we are shards of others.”

One shard: my lineage of Catholicism, dating back to St. Thomas.

Another shard: Judaism, practiced before Christianity.

Another shard: Hindu celebrations and rituals incorporated into our Catholicism.

Another shard: Indigenous spiritualities of the land my people are from and the Dena’ina Land I’ve found home on.

Another shard: my girlfriend’s lineage, Judaism in resistance to the Zionist settler colonial state.

Another shard: the Muslim men who cared for Sarah Cohen and continue to memorialize a woman who refused to leave her home in Jew Town.

Another shard: thousands of practices not quite my own, but not quite separate.


I brought Sarah to my homeland, but I didn’t bring her to my family’s homes. My parents were raised on opposite sides of Kerala. Their relationships to land, place, and migration were changed by colonization, the material bureaucratization of the nation-state, and the attempt to fit into the hierarchies of the imperialist imagination.

My father was born before Partition, when the British divided the subcontinent into India & Pakistan in 1947, creating boundary lines where there had been none. After sowing dissent between Muslims and Hindus through administrative opportunity, education, and access to wealth, the British formalized these borders through the nation. They set off the largest forced migration in human history.

In each of the border regions, the population was mixed, just as all over India. On each side of the Partition line, neighbors and families were split into different countries separated by laws, armies, and dogmas. Hindus here, Muslims there, and everyone else — Sikhs, Jains, Christians, Buddhists — geopolitically speaking, we didn’t exist. Kids were cut from their schools, parents from their jobs, villages lost hospitals and doctors.

Millions of people were killed because of a line drawn by a British lawyer who had never set foot in India. He divided Punjab and Bengal, splitting up families, cultures, and languages. Punjabi Indians have more in common, culturally, with Punjabi Pakistanis than with Malayalis, and yet as a Malayali, my family shares a country with a billion people who don’t know our language.

Kerala was far away from that border violence. Kerala is known as a place where people of all religions live peacefully, but it’s not a utopia: The caste system was used by the British to divide and conquer. Christians, like my family, were positioned alongside Brahmins to have more socio-political power than Muslims, Adivasis, Dalits, and others who have been long oppressed.

My mom told me stories of her brothers building huts in the trees to watch for wild elephants, of cousins dying of snake bites, and of being part of the first graduating class from the village high school. Within these stories is a legacy of colonization. Recently, I learned my mother’s family moved to the jungles of northern Kerala a few decades after the Mappila Rebellion, when the peasant class, primarily Muslim, rose up against the ruling class of British-backed, higher-caste landlords. I’m still learning, and from what I currently understand, the British incentivized Christians to move north and develop the land. My mother’s family were, perhaps, part of settling the jungle as part of a British effort to suppress class violence. Her family lost connection with the families who stayed in south Kerala.

Almost ten years after Partition, Kerala was formed as a single state, unified by Malayalam. Prior to this, language had not been the unit around which governance coalesced. Around the same time, my father’s family, who’d farmed land in South Kerala, were evicted. In response to pending land reforms, which would give tenants rights to the land they tended, the landlords removed the farmers. On both sides of my family, the ripples of British colonization and the post-colonial period displaced us.

Arundhati Roy writes in Azadi: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction: “While Partition and the horrifying violence that it caused is a deep, unhealed wound in the memory of the subcontinent, the violence of those times, as well as in the years since, in India and Pakistan, has as much to do with assimilation as it does with Partition. In India, the project of assimilation, which goes under the banner of nation-building, has meant that there has not been a single year since 1947 when the Indian Army has not been deployed within India’s borders against its ‘own people.’ The list is long–Kashmir, Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur, Hyderabad, Assam. The business of assimilation has been complicated and painful and has cost tens of thousands of lives.”

I used to think Kerala was untouched by colonization because we were so far from the border violence of Partition, or because we had somewhat autonomous princely states, or because, for now, the religious mix of Kerala doesn’t allow for the kinds of Hindu nationalist pograms that have cyclically attacked Muslim communities up north. On this most recent visit, though, I listened to the cacophony of birds playing in trees, pet a three-month old dog who nipped my ankles, marveled at the litter of puppies born under the stove, and thought about how it was the legacy of colonization that brought my parents to the United States, that propped up Christians over Hindus and India over her Muslim neighbors, that made my family the beneficiaries of Indian citizenship, that encouraged Malayali migration, that brought me up in this capitalist culture, so oriented towards death.


I often think of my gender the way I think of third spacing. As a nurse, I pump liters of fluid into sick bodies, and then watch legs and arms swell, edematous with the water that can’t fit inside blood vessels. Water leaks into the third space, where, instead of propelling blood throughout the body, the barrier between inside and outside erodes. Pores leak from the swell. This refusal of borders threatens the body; this chaos kills.

In Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation, Sophie Lewis traces the origin of ‘abolition’ to a German word that “unites the ideas of lifting up, destroying, preserving, and radically transforming, all at once.” When I think of abolition, I think not only of abolishing prisons, militaries, and hospitals, but also about the abolition of family structures, like Lewis theorizes. I think about what Angela Davis said about the gender binary, how trans people challenge the “very foundation of our sense of normalcy.” And, I think about borders, from the cellular to the global.

The body that the chaos of my transness attacks is the colonial body. To die, to become so uncontrollable that the body must die: I want to create nothing less than a new world, one that lifts up, destroys, preserves, and radically transforms the one we have. At its root, abolition is the continuous, participatory creation of what happens next.

My gender is relational, which is to say that when Sarah drapes me in silk and waxes my legs, when she holds me down and makes me scream, I feel a girl part seep out, a girl part that I’d never felt embodied in until I met her. But there are other lovers, and they transform me too: fluid pours out of us, we are not only our own, we are borderless, exploding the notion of self / other. With another lover, I unhinge my jaw and attempt to stretch my body over them; I am filled with an irresistible urge to devour. Less boy, more snake, opening wide to swallow them whole. Less boy, more fishing net, as I wrap rope around my lover and make them tiny, light, caught within my grasp.

We change each other, and isn’t this the beauty of love? We change each other, we are no longer our own. Like the synagogue sharing a wall with the temple, our walls can be used to divide, or they can be used to hold each other up: to worship alongside one another, to make worship possible.

Audre Lorde writes in Zami: A New Spelling of My Name: A Biomythography: “Every woman I have ever loved has left her print upon me, where I loved some invaluable piece of myself apart from me–so different that I had to stretch and grow in order to recognize her. And in that growing, we came to separation, that place where work begins.”

When Sarah asked me to go to Jew Town, she prompted an investigation of my own family’s history. Her curiosity about her people helped me to better understand mine, and my understanding of Kerala Christian history stretched and grew to include a Jewish history I’d neglected.


Sarah Cohen was called the Last Remaining Jew of Jew Town because the Cochin Jews left Kerala after the Nakba, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced to create the Zionist state. This came after decades of British rule over Palestine. I can’t help but think about how the codification of divide and conquer through attaching religion to governance is another form of global assimilation to tools of empire.

In response to an earlier draft of this, a friend worried that I spent too much time on the British when, today, the Zionist state is actively massacring Palestinians, and we need to focus on that. I agree; we do need to focus on stopping the Zionist state, on refusing the genocide of Palestinians. We must, as Rasha Abdulhadi says, throw sand in the gears of genocide. I am not a historian, but I write about the history of Britain’s borders, gender, and queerness because unlearning the lies colonizers have told us is part of refusing genocide.

The lies: We are dirty, less than human, worthy of subjugation, queerness is criminal, gender a binary.

More lies: We cannot get along with each other, religious divisions are natural, we need colonizers to civilize us, we don’t exist at all, resistance has not always existed.

The Cochin Jews left Kerala, became settlers, and moved to a place their people hadn’t lived in for over a thousand years. I’m thinking about how Sarah Cohen refused to leave: Perhaps she knew love in the place of my ancestors, perhaps she refused the lies of the Zionist state.

In the current escalation of genocide against Palestinians, I grieve tens of thousands of Palestinians killed, over a million people displaced, the deaths of Palestinian healthcare workers, elders older than the Zionist state gone. I grieve what my life could have been like had colonization never interrupted my family’s relationship to land. I grieve Sarah Cohen, who died in 2016 at 96 years old. I grieve the loss of an active Jewish community in Jew Town.

When I talked to Sarah about my grief for Jew Town, she reminded me that Jewish people have always refused to attach their identities to a Zionist nation: “Even in the places in Eastern Europe where Jews weren’t so safe there is an element of that. Anti-Zionists at the time said: ‘No, let’s not give up on trying to fight anti-semitism in the places we live. We want this diaspora, to exist as Jews all over the place instead of putting all our hopes on a state.’ And Kerala is a clear case because they were actually safe and politically free there already.”  Sarah reminded me that her people have not always depended on killing others for a sense of belonging, or for the profit of colonization.

My transness refuses colonial borders. My transness requires that those who love me, who support my transness, refuse genocide. My gender expands everything in between, my gender is a reckoning. Gender is not a place I pledge allegiance to, and neither is a country.

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M. K. Thekkumkattil (they/them) is a trans disabled kinky writer and Critical Care nurse whose liberation is bound up with Palestinian Liberation. They are a recipient of a 2023 Rasmuson Foundation Individual Artist Award and a Lambda Literary Fellow. Their work can be found in Fence Magazine, Year Round Queer, & In the Future There Are No Hospitals, & @thekkumkattilmk.

MK has written 2 articles for us.


  1. This piece is exactly what I most love to see from Autostraddle: an incredibly powerful blend of personal and political, intertextual (searching for Abolish the Family immediately, and inspired to brush up on my Audre Lorde!), evocative, and informative. I was not expecting to learn so much (or anything at all) about the Jewish history of Kerala today but this essay was a pleasant surprise and a gift. Thank you for sharing this piece of yourself.

  2. M. K. Thekkumkattil is speaking for so many queer, Indian, trans National people who also have such traumatic ties to colonization. I do not have the details or the history of all my family went through in India and then Africa and then Britain but MK’s words resonate with me deeply and I appreciate them sharing their family history with us all. Palestinians are going through a genocide as the world watches and MK has shown us that we are all connected and we should all have humanity. Thank you for this piece ♥️

  3. MK,
    Thank you for this beautiful piece. It touched me deeply as a jew navigating my relationship to Judaism in this moment while deeply pained by Zionism and it’s ongoing genocidal destruction.

  4. Yessssss, love this piece MK! You have such an incredible way of weaving together stories that span space and time. It’s like you wrapped so many people that you love, people you’ve never met but dream of freedom with, and us as the readers, in the softest, finest shawl. Thank you for sharing this gift with us.

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