Landmark Supreme Court ruling allows legal change of sex

Posted on : 2006-06-23 10:02 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Family registry to reflect change, court says

In a landmark ruling, South Korea’s top court on Thursday cleared the way for the country’s transsexuals to legally change their gender.

The Supreme Court ruled that a female-to-male transsexual should be allowed to change the gender listed in his family registry from "female" to "male." The ruling came after two lower courts rejected petitions by the same client in 2003. The court then remanded the case to the Cheongju District Court.

Since local civil and family-registry laws contain no clear definition of one’s sex, court rulings have moved between a biologically-based view that chromosomes alone determine gender, and agreeing with sex-change recipients that psychological factors are more important in gender identity. This ruling is the first by the nation’s top court on the issue, so it is likely to serve as an important standard for future rulings. Many of the nation’s estimated 30,000 transgender citizens are likely to follow suit and petition to change their sex legally.

"If one is clearly recognizable as the opposite sex in both appearance as well as in their individual and social life after having sex-reassignment surgery, he or she has the right to pursue dignity, self-value, and happiness and live a humane existence," said Justice Kim Ji-hyung in his ruling.

"We should recognize their gender change, if this does not go against public interests or order," Justice Kim said.

Justice Kim said the court decision was best choice to alleviate the suffering of transsexual people at a time when any tangible legislative measures to protect their rights is most likely a long time coming.

An increasing number of transgender people in South Korea have asked courts to allow them to change their sex in family registries since the Busan District Court accepted an appeal by a 30-year-old man, identified only by his family name Yoon, to change his sex to female.

Twenty-two people were allowed to change their gender in 2003, followed by 10 in 2004 and 15 in 2005.

The most well-known transgender celebrity in South Korea is popular entertainer Harisu, who underwent a male-to-female sex-change operation. The actress, singer, and model was allowed by a district court to legally switch her sex from male to female in December 2002.

However, South Korean courts are strict on permitting such legal gender changes. Ten people lost in court in attempts to legally change their sex in 2004. Another six lost similar cases in 2005.

Harisu welcomed Thursday’s ruling as a "quite right and natural decision."

"A democratic society must legally ensure the human dignity of its members," the entertainer told Yonhap News Agency by telephone.

The South Korean military said a male-to-female transsexual will be exempt from serving the mandatory two years and two months of military duty if the individual’s gender reads as "female" in the family registry with court approval. On the other hand, female-to-male sex reassignment recipients will have to complete military duty under the same circumstances, the military said.

By Shim Sun-ah, Seoul, June 22 (Yonhap News)

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