Korea’s first openly trans athlete hopes to prompt a discussion by competing as herself

Posted on : 2023-06-02 17:25 KST Modified on : 2023-06-02 17:25 KST
Na Hwa-leen will participate in the Gangwon Sports Festival, the first openly trans athlete to compete in a major competition in Korea
Na Hwa-leen poses with her bike outside of a café in Gangwon Province’s Cheorwon County on May 31. (Baek So-ah/The Hankyoreh)
Na Hwa-leen poses with her bike outside of a café in Gangwon Province’s Cheorwon County on May 31. (Baek So-ah/The Hankyoreh)

A transgender athlete will compete in a provincial sporting festival in Korea this week, marking the first time a transgender person has received permission to take part in an official sporting event in Korea. As there has been little to no previous discussion on the participation of transgender athletes in sporting competitions in Korea, this appears likely to ignite a number of debates in society over fairness and other issues.

Na Hwa-leen, a 37-year-old transgender woman, will take part in two events in the women’s division of the cycling discipline (track cycling and scratch) as a representative of Cheorwon County in the 58th Gangwon Sports Festival that runs June 3-7.

Na was assigned male at birth, but underwent gender-affirming surgery in October last year and has completed all related medical transition procedures.

Na took part in provincial sporting contests from 2011-2015 and even placed among the winners, but this is the first time she will compete in an event after coming out publicly as trans and transitioning.

To date, there are no known cases of a transgender athlete taking part in an official sporting competition in Korea. Na was able to enter the women’s cycling event because the province’s rules on women’s events do not state any restrictions other than gender. After receiving affirming surgery, Na had her resident registration number changed to reflect her gender on April 7, and was able to confirm her entry into the event without any special constraints.

The participation of transgender athletes in sports competitions is a contentious topic around the world.

Controversy erupted in March 2022, when 24-year-old Lia Thomas became the first openly transgender athlete to win the women’s 500-yard freestyle event at the National Collegiate Athletic Association swimming championships, and when 21-year-old transgender cyclist Emily Bridges was informed by the Union Cycliste Internationale that she was ineligible to compete.

Na Hwa-leen bikes down a road in Cheorwon ahead of her race in the Gangwon Sports Festival. (Baek So-ah/The Hankyoreh)
Na Hwa-leen bikes down a road in Cheorwon ahead of her race in the Gangwon Sports Festival. (Baek So-ah/The Hankyoreh)

At the heart of these controversies is the question of whether it’s fair for trans women to compete with cis women athletes.

In response to such controversies over fairness, Na said that she decided to compete because she wanted her participation to “be an issue.”

“It is legally discriminatory to prevent a transgender woman from competing as a woman,” she told a reporter from the Hankyoreh in Cheorwon, Gangwon Province, a day before her participation was announced.

“If I wanted to improve my performance, I would have to take male hormones, which counts as illegal doping. However, I took female hormones before I competed.” Na stated that it was for the sake of “reinforcing her will to become a woman.”

Na was modest about the outlook.

“Even if I do win a medal in the women’s category at this competition, I’m not going to boast,” she said, acknowledging that her participation could be seen as “unfair” to other athletes.

“I would rather see transgender people compete as a third gender, separate from men and women, just like we have separate weight classes,” she said.

LGBTQ organizations are hopeful that Na’s participation will spark a public debate on the issue of transgender women athletes competing in the women’s division.

“It’s been a big topic of discussion overseas, but it hasn’t been discussed in Korea,” said Han Chae-yoon, an activist with the Korean Sexual Minority Culture & Rights Center. “I hope [Na’s participation] will be a starting point for a full-scale discussion on how to make sports free of discrimination.”

Park Han-hee, a lawyer at public interest group Hope and Law said that while she disagreed with Na’s call for a separate category for trans athletes, “it is courageous for Na to reveal her identity as a transgender woman and spark social discussion.”

By Chai Yoon-tae, staff reporter; Oh Se-jin, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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