SEOUL—A transgender soldier who enlisted in South Korea’s army as a man who wanted to continue serving as a woman after sex reassignment surgery has been discharged, with a military panel saying she had violated regulations.
The fate of Staff Sgt. Byun Hee-soo, who is in her 20s, was viewed by many in South Korea’s LGBT community as a test case for the role of gay and transgender people in the socially conservative country. Although the LGBT community has gained more acceptance in recent years, South Korea is still less tolerant than many other East Asian nations such as Taiwan, which last year legalized same-sex marriage, and Japan, which has elected its first openly gay lawmaker. LGBT people in South Korea continue to face widespread discrimination, according to human rights groups, with many choosing to live under the radar.
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Their situation is especially difficult in South Korea’s armed forces. It is one of the few countries to still enforce conscription, which it uses to defend its borders against North Korea. Women can also choose to serve.
But the military punishes same-sex relations with up to two years in prison, and rights groups including Amnesty International have cataloged instances of abuse and discrimination directed at gay soldiers.
Sgt. Byun attended a news conference at the center Wednesday afternoon, revealing her identity after the military panel’s decision.
She enlisted as a man in 2017 and drove a tank, among other duties, saying it was her childhood dream to serve in the military. “I want to show that I can protect the nation as an excellent soldier regardless of my gender identity,” she told reporters Wednesday after her discharge was announced, wearing her fatigues and saluting while fighting back tears. “Please allow me the opportunity.”
The military panel, though, ruled that she will be discharged effective Jan. 24.
The Defense Ministry said the decision wasn’t related to Sgt. Byun’s gender but based on her medical records. Under South Korea’s military code, removing or damaging one’s genitals is classified as an indication of a physical or mental imbalance, which led to a review of her status in the armed forces.
Sgt. Byun said she decided to undergo sex reassignment surgery to relieve the depression she was suffering as a result of gender dysphoria. She said her unit had supported her decision, and that she hoped the military would continue to provide more rights to soldiers. “When I was commissioned, we couldn’t even imagine using smartphones inside the barracks,” she said.
Lim Tae-hoon of the military rights center said the military’s decision to discharge Sgt. Byun by week’s end instead of providing the usual three-months’ notice was its way of saying it can’t accept the presence of transgender people in the armed forces.
“She is being forced out of the military just because she is transgender,” said
who heads the Trans Liberation Front advocacy group. “This is outright discrimination.”
Worldwide, some 19 countries allow transgender soldiers to serve. In the U.S., transgender recruits have been banned from joining the military, but the restriction doesn’t apply to troops already serving in the armed forces.
Write to Dasl Yoon at [email protected]
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