Being a transgender feminist in the UK: an expat's views

Expat interviews
  • indian queer expat
Published on 2022-07-01 at 10:00 by Ester Rodrigues
Jo Krishnakumar is an Indian transgender feminist and Ph.D. candidate who works for gender equality in India and in the UK. They are engaged in queer fights and share how it is for a trans person to live in the UK and how hard it is to find communities. They also give advice to people from the global south who want to move abroad.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself? 

My name is Jo Krishnakumar. I'm Indian, and I'm currently living in London, where I'm doing my Ph.D. in anthropology and sociology at the SOAS University of London. I'm writing my thesis after doing my fieldwork. Likewise, I also work with the National Network of Sex Workers in India. Furthermore, I also have a few projects of my own, for example, Transform, which is a website for understanding violence against trans people in India, and Almaarii, which it's an ethnographic project that looks at how closets are constructed in our minds or in-person for queer people. I'm very interested in understanding the world through the lenses of gender and feminism, transfeminism more precisely, and a lot of it comes out of my own experiences as a trans-queer person. With my experiences within feminism, I'm constantly learning what that means to me and the people around me, and the communities I'm a part of.

Why the UK?

I moved to the UK because I got a nice offer from the school of Oriental and African studies at SAOS. I really enjoy my time at SAOS, and I like that I'm studying over here and the opportunities I get while studying at SAOS. It's more because of the university that I'm here. Not only that, but I would have gone to another country if it were there. Likewise, I think it's also because my partner also got to study over here, and we made the decision together to come to universities that we really liked and it just sort of clicked that both of us were in London.

Particularly in SAOS, I like the people I met over here and the fact we have access to knowledge and opportunities in London. I've always wanted to study elsewhere than India because I've done my previous degrees in India, but before that, I've been an expat all my life. I lived in Riyadh and then in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates until I was seventeen, coming back home to India for 5 to 6 years until I came to London for my Ph.D., so I have been moving for quite some time. So that's why I moved to the UK.

What are the most challenging aspects of living in the UK? 

The issue of living in the UK would obviously be the lack of money I have as a student because London is a very expensive city, so I find it very challenging to access jobs. For example, with the UK student visa, I can only work 20 hours, but even with that, there are some specific jobs that I get. I cannot work as self-employed, for example, and that doesn't help me because I like working on multiple projects simultaneously.

I like working on short-term projects, this is the work I prefer, but I can't exactly do that in the UK as much as I'd like. Besides, Ph.D. students and academics get much lower salaries than the effort that they put into work, so I would say payment is a significant barrier over here, and I need to get to a certain level if I have to get paid for the labor that I'm putting in, so I do find that extremely challenging about living in the UK.

Another thing that I find really challenging is that I had to create my whole community here. I had to leave my community when I came from India, I came with my partner, so some of those things were softened because I wasn't exactly alone, but at the same time, for example, when I talk about connections, I talk about groups that are together based on identity. To find a queer community here, find a trans community, understand how a community has its own culture here and how that works, and where I fit inside that was challenging as well because I felt like it was culturally specific. So, there was a lot of information I did not know, and a lot of social aspects that I would not understand, which was some sort of cultural shock that I felt about living in the UK.

Are you happy about living in the UK? 

I have my independence, and I really enjoy living in the UK. I like the space that I have been able to see for myself and my mental health and for my displaying gently and the work that I do know in the UK. I absolutely love being me. I don't think it's much about being in the UK; I think it's just about how I feel. Not only that, but I could have done this anywhere in the world, and as I said, I've been an expat before, so for me, literally, home is where the heart is. It sounds very cheesy, but it's true for me.

Because the place where I'm able to find the most connection with me, I will meet other people. In some places, we will not be home; in some other places, where you probably spend less time is perhaps where the best things, people, and experiences will appear. I guess I'm still figuring it out. However, what I do really like about the UK is that it is so close to the rest of Europe, and there's so much more to see even within the country, so I'm just waiting and looking forward to exploring.

So far, I couldn't experience as much as I would have liked to. I also really like how cosmopolitan the UK is because I've actually been able to get a lot of foods made in specific countries, so I feel like I have been able to travel a lot. Food-wise, my mind has been able to travel more than my physical body has been able to. I feel I've been to a lot of places because of the kind of food I get over here, and I really enjoy that so many types of people come and make London their home.

Do you consider yourself a feminist? How do you feel feminisms are shared in your home country and in the UK? 

Yes, I'm a transfeminist. The UK and India have a very deep shared history, so it's impossible for feminism not to be connected. There is the colonial experience with India in the way that I mean they were colonizers. They still are in a lot of ways if you think about cultural colonialism, and India still experiences colonialism after so many years after independence. What happens then is also racism is embedded in how British people look at countries like India or Pakistan or Bangladesh, or any other country that they have colonized before. So, feminists need first to decolonize feminism, so they can be on par with the feminist in India because they are doing amazing work. Trans feminists have been doing amazing work, and queer feminists have been doing an amazing job here as well for quite some time. I feel feminists in the UK first need to decolonize to be able to see clearly where we can work together; I'm not saying that work isn't being done, but it can be better.

What are your plans for the future? 

I need to finish my Ph.D., so I do intend to live in the UK because I'm currently building my career here, but if my career takes me elsewhere, I am happy to move. I don't think specific borders or nation-states are the things that I need to hold onto too much, but at the same time, I understand that many other people hold to them.

Is there any advice you would give to people from the global south who want to move to the UK?

My advice to minority genders is: you can do it! It's some sort of cliché, but what I mean is that you can do what you like, what you need, and you don't need anybody's permission to travel the world; you do not need anybody's permission to see outside what has been given to you. I would say you need to remove the glasses that have been given to you and look very well at what you want to. You do not have to know people in advance in certain countries to go somewhere or to explore a life that seems like a dream to you at first. I know it all seems complicated but go for it, no matter how crazy and far it may appear. 

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