SEOUL, South Korea – A transgender woman who was expelled by the South Korean military last year after her gender reassignment surgery was found dead in her home south of Seoul, police said Thursday.
Authorities said they were investigating the cause of death of the woman, 23-year-old Byeon Hee-su, whose body was found Wednesday at her home in Cheongju city by emergency services. They were alerted after a local mental health center that had been counseling her reported that it could not contact her.
Ms. Byeon, who had been a staff sergeant in an army tank unit, was discharged from the army in January 2020 after her surgery. She had wanted to continue her service in the military, but a military panel declared her unfit to serve. She became the first active duty soldier in South Korea to be referred to such a panel because she had undergone a sex change operation.
Since her dismissal, Ms. Byeon had campaigned vigorously to be reinstated, arguing that there was no reason why she could not fulfill her obligations.
“I want to show that I can be an excellent soldier who helps defend this country regardless of my sexual identity,” Ms Byeon tearfully told a news conference after her discharge. “Please give me that opportunity.”
Ms. Byeon’s case exposed the plight that lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender people often face in South Korea’s socially conservative society, especially in its military. Homosexuals and other soldiers have long complained of discrimination and abuse. Gay men and lesbians are not prohibited from service, but have been subjected to investigations by military officials. However, transgender people are prohibited from joining the military, as the military classifies them as people with mental and physical “disorders.”
In a ruling last year, a district court formally recognized Ms. Byeon as a woman. After the military rejected her initial reinstatement petition, Ms. Byeon sued the military, arguing that her discharge was illegal. The first hearing in the case was scheduled for next month in a military court.
The military expressed their condolences for his death, but declined to comment further.
Ms. Byeon’s death sparked an outpouring in social media of transgender people, who thanked him for speaking out in favor of the rights of transgender people in the face of social stigma.
“I am truly sorry that we have not been able to protect the life I wanted so much,” said Jang Hye-young, a lawmaker affiliated with the Minority Justice Party. saying in a post on Twitter.
Efforts to adopt a comprehensive anti-discrimination law to promote the rights of women and sexual and other minorities have been hampered for years in Parliament as powerful conservative Christian churches have lobbied against it, calling it the sinful behavior of LGBT people.
Ms. Byeon joined the military in 2017. She underwent its operation in Thailand while on leave. She then got into trouble when a South Korean military hospital, where she had registered for postoperative treatment, said she was disabled and could be discharged from the military due to the loss of male genitalia from surgery.
South Korea, which is technically at war with North Korea across one of the most heavily fortified borders in the world, requires all trained men to serve in its armed forces for about 20 months. Women are exempt from compulsory military service, but can choose to enlist.
Before her death, Ms. Byeon found significant international support for her cause.
United Nations human rights officials said in a letter to the South Korean government last July that her dismissal “would violate the right to work and the prohibition of discrimination based on gender identity under international rights law. humans”.
The South Korean government defended the army’s decision, saying that to allow transgender people to serve in the military, the country would have to consider how it would affect the readiness of troops for combat against North Korea. He also said the nation had to weigh the “effects on staff morale.”
In December, the South Korean National Human Rights Commission called the army’s decision unfair and recommended that it reinstate Ms. Byeon.
Lim Tae-hoon, director of the Korean Military Center for Human Rights, which assisted Ms Byeon, said after her death: “We pray that Sergeant Byeon Hee-su, a tank driver, will live with like-minded people in the next world where there is no discrimination and hatred ”.