Recently, a non-commissioned officer (NCO) who underwent gender reassignment surgery while on leave from duty, has raised questions about the status of trans people serving in the Korean military. On January 16, 2020 Staff Sgt. Byun Hui-soo returned to base as a woman in the hopes of completing her service as a female. However, unsure of how to handle the matter, the command undertook a mandatory investigation of the case and concluded that Byun would be discharged. A panel determined she had a level 3 mental and physical disorder which resulted in an automatic discharge from service. However, Staff Sgt. Byun was not ready to go without a fight. She raised the matter with the Center for Military Human Rights Korea (CMHRK). According to military officials, she is the first person wanting to continue their service after having a sex-change surgery. This case has become a hot topic today raising questions about human rights and gender identity.
|▲ The soldier who hold a press conference about serving as a female soldier. (Photo from Newsis)|
There are two points of contention in the argument. First, which should be prioritized, individual freedom or social norms? It is clear that Staff Sgt. Byun merely wanted to narrow the gap between her physical gender and psychological gender, but she also wanted to continue her service as a female. Although she was free to change her gender, to serve as a woman, after the surgery, she would have to live in female military quarters and this was raised as a possible point of contention as other female soldiers would be forced to share the common living space. The question was asked, would other female soldiers recognize her as a woman? If not, they would be free to argue their rights are being violated by having to share their space with a former man. Next, what should take priority, military regulations or an individual’s rights and freedoms? Army regulations exist to maintain order and structure in the critical organization. According to the Military Personnel Management Act, a man without testicles or penis is regarded as having a grade 5 disability. This level of disability exempts personnel from military service. So if Staff Sgt. Byun was legally still a man, what should take priority, military regulations or an individual’s freedom?
Transgender individuals are exempt from military service, but there are no rules on the books dealing with those who seek reassignment when already serving. Currently, the public is divided on this issue. People who prioritize personal freedom assert that the army should allow Staff Sgt. Byun to continue to serve as a female soldier, whereas people who prioritize social norms argue that she can’t serve in the military alongside other women.
At a press conference held on January 22, the officer in question said that she has suffered from a gender identity crisis since she was a child. She had reached the end of the line while acting as a male officer. She had spoken with her superiors about her gender identity struggles and with their blessing, she decided to have the surgery while still serving. That all changed when she returned and was immediately discharged from service. During her interview, the officer raised compelling arguments for wanting to continue to serve. She said wanted to show everyone that she could be a great soldier protecting her country regardless of her gender identity. However, army officials disagreed. “The officer does not meet the conditions required to be a male soldier. According to military rules, a man who doesn't have testicles and a penis is assessed with a grade 5 disability and is forcibly discharged. The judgement was leveled under the terms of our regulations and not based on the Staff Sgt.’s gender identity.” Army officials declared that the case was being dealt with under existing rules and that no exceptions would be made. However, the CMHRK said that a juridical review should be made because there is no separate legislation to deal with transgenders and there is a conflict of opinion between related organizations and the officer. As there was no justification to discharge Byun after her gender was legally corrected, the Army headquarters quickly acted to assess her with a level 3 mental and physical disorder and deny her application to serve. At a discharge review committee held at Gyeryong Army headquarters, the court upheld the decision and SSG. Byun was discharged from service.
A transgender woman who was accepted to Sookmyung Women’s University is also embroiled in a similar controversy. Some people disagreed with the decision saying the space was for women only. Sookmyung Women’s University said there was no problem with her admission under school regulations, but fearing a backlash, the woman withdrew her application anyhow.
|▲ A picture of Sookmyung Women's University where had a controversy over the admission of transgender. (Photo from dhknews)|
Transgender-related laws are clearly lacking in Korea. Even gender correction under the law is defined by guidelines instead of specific laws. This means the decision to approve or deny the application depends on the judge, resulting in an uneven application of the policy. SSG Byun’s case was a novel event as there are no laws on the books to address soldiers returning to duty after undergoing gender reassignment surgery.
On February 10, Cheongju-si announced that Byun’s gender change application was legally accepted. It took 44 days to complete after being submitted on December 29, 19 days after she was forced to leave the army. "The controversies surrounding the entry of transgender women into Sookmyung Women's University and Byun's case show how Korea is mired in a vortex of disgust," said the CMHRK. They claimed, “There are also too many people, who don’t hesitate to deny the existence of a person and trample on their lives in our society". Park Han-hee, the first transgender female lawyer in Korea, said, “Although we are in 2020, Korea still has strong social disapproval of sexual minorities when a person feels forced to give up her chance to attend Sookmyung Women's University.” New laws are overdue.
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