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South Korea’s first transgender soldier will reportedly be suing the country’s military over her dismissal from the army. The 22-year-old Byun Hui-soo was enlisted in the South Korean army as a man, but underwent gender reassignment surgery in 2019.
“I will continue to fight until the day I can remain to serve in the army. I’ll challenge the decision until the end, to the Supreme Court,” she said during an emotional appearance in front of the media. Byun was a staff sergeant and was stationed in Gyeonggi Province north of Seoul, the nation’s capital.
Byun has reportedly suffered from gender dysphoria and mental health issues during army service. “I thought I would finish serving in the army and then go through the transition surgery and then re-enter the army as a female soldier. But my depression got too severe,” she added.
She had a gender reassignment operation in Thailand last year while on leave, and was hoping to continue serving the country in the female corps division.
Speaking at a press conference in Seoul on January 22, Byun expressed her determination to show everyone that her gender identity does not define her as a soldier. “Apart from my gender identity, I want to show everyone that I can also be one of the great soldiers who protect this country,” she added.
Gender norms and laws in South Korea
Apparently, 58% of the country is opposed to same-sex marriage and reportedly thousands from conservative churches came out to protest the 2018 pride parade in Incheon, South Korea.
“For our LGBTI people living in the country, fitting in is made even harder by highly conservative traditional gender norms – particularly in a nation where all male citizens between the ages of 18 and 35 must perform two years of mandatory military service,” Natalie, a South Korean queer woman told the South China Morning Post.
South Korea currently does not have laws that govern lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual (LGBTQIA) soldiers. While the country does not allow transgenders to join the military, there are no specific laws governing gender reassignment surgery that occurs during the time spent in service.
The military released a statement on January 22, saying that it was determined to avoid “unfair discrimination and treatment.” Despite the military’s claim, an activist from the Center for Military Human Rights, Korea (CMHRK), Lim Tae-hoon, found it unusual that Byun’s discharge was effective the day after the decision was made.
Lim told the BBC that usually the decision is effective after a period of up to three months, suggesting that the army perhaps did not want Byun to have further contact with her unit.