South Korea Discharges Soldier Who Underwent Sex-Change Surgery
SEOUL, South Korea — The South Korean military on Wednesday decided to discharge a soldier who had undergone gender-reassignment surgery but wanted to remain in military service as a female.
The decision was made amid an outcry from L.G.B.T. advocates in South Korea who said the soldier was being unfairly persecuted and there was no reason she could not fulfill her duties.
The case of the soldier, Byeon Hee-su, a staff sergeant in an army tank unit, highlighted the unwelcome treatment that lesbians, gay men and transgender people often face in South Korea’s socially conservative society, especially in its armed forces. It is the first case in which an active-duty soldier in South Korea has been referred to a military panel to decide whether he or she is fit to serve after having a gender-reassignment operation.
Under the military’s decision, Sergeant Byeon must leave the army by Friday.
Shortly after the decision was announced, she held a news conference, tearfully appealing to the military to reverse its decision. She said that serving in the military had been her childhood dream and that she had been an exemplary soldier.
“I know the military is not ready yet to accept transgender soldiers like me,” the sergeant said. “But I hope that sexual-minority soldiers like me will be able to perform their duty without discrimination. I want to show that I can be an excellent soldier who helps defend this country regardless of my sexual identity.”
“Please give me that chance,” she said.
South Korea, which remains technically at war with North Korea across one of the world’s most heavily armed borders, requires all able-bodied men to serve for about two years in its armed forces. Women are exempt from conscription but may choose to enlist. But transgender people are barred from joining the military, categorized as having mental and physical “disorders.”
But rights groups have long complained about unclear guidelines on the issue, citing cases where transgender people exempted from military service were later sued on charges of faking their gender identity to avoid the draft. Some transgender people voluntarily join the military but hide their identity to avoid harassment and abuse from fellow soldiers. Others are forced to serve after failing to convince conscript officials of their current identity.
The South Korean military also lacks specific regulations on what to do with those who have gender-reassignment operations while in service.
The Center for Military Human Rights in Korea, a watchdog based in Seoul, the South Korean capital, that monitors rights violations within the military, publicized the case of the transgender staff sergeant last week.
Sergeant Byeon, who is in her 20s, was male when she joined the military in 2017. The Center for Military Human Rights said the sergeant underwent hormone therapy and other treatments before having a sex-change operation abroad last year while on leave. She wanted to continue to serve as a career soldier and had also asked a court to be legally recognized as a woman.
Then the military intervened.
A military-run hospital, where the sergeant had checked in for post-surgery treatment, said that she was handicapped, and could be discharged from the army because of the loss of genitalia from the surgery.
On Tuesday, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea warned that that decision could constitute “discrimination based on sexual identity.”
But the military pushed its own discharge panel to make a final determination on Sergeant Byeon’s fitness. The panel decided on Wednesday she was not fit to serve.
The decision “had nothing to do with the soldier’s personal motives” to be recognized as female, it said.
Human rights groups have said the military needs to be more welcoming to transgender people. After decades of low birthrates, South Korea has had increasing difficulty finding enough recruits to fill the ranks of its 600,000-member military. But South Korean society harbors a deep bias against L.G.B.T people, despite increasingly vocal support in recent years.
Gay and transgender soldiers in the military have long complained of discrimination and abuse. Gay men and lesbians are not barred from service but they have been subject to investigations by military officials.
South Korea’s Military Criminal Act outlaws “anal sex and other indecent acts” between servicemen, whether or not they take place on military property. Those found guilty face up to two years in prison.
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