S. Korean military forcibly discharges soldier after gender reassignment surgery

Posted on : 2020-01-23 17:54 KST Modified on : 2020-01-23 17:54 KST
Staff Sergeant Byeon Hee-su gives press conference explaining her feelings and situation
Staff Sergeant Byeon Hee-su speaks during a press conference regarding her discharge following gender reassignment surgery at the Center for Military Human Rights Korea on Jan. 22. (Yonhap News)
Staff Sergeant Byeon Hee-su speaks during a press conference regarding her discharge following gender reassignment surgery at the Center for Military Human Rights Korea on Jan. 22. (Yonhap News)

The Republic of Korea Army Headquarters decided on Jan. 22 to “forcibly discharge” Staff Sergeant Byeon Hee-su, a noncommissioned officer who indicated her intent to continue serving in the women’s armed forces after undergoing gender reassignment surgery during leave in Thailand.

Speaking before the cameras at a press conference the same day, Byeon said, “I hope that LGBT soldiers can complete their duties and mission in an environment without discrimination.”

“I want to show that people of every sexual identity can become outstanding soldiers who protect their country,” she added.

After a meeting of the discharge review committee for Byeon’s case earlier that day, the Army Headquarters announced, “We decided to discharge [Byeon] based on the decision that [her gender reassignment] constituted ‘grounds for being unable to continue to serve’ according to the Military Personnel Management Act and other relevant laws.”

Regarding the National Human Rights Commission of Korea’s recommendation on Jan. 21 that Byeon’s review be postponed for three months, the Army Headquarters said that “the discharge decision was made according to lawful procedures as stated in the relevant laws based on the conclusions of a medical investigation and irrespective of personal grounds such as an application for gender reassignment.”

After returning from undergoing gender reassignment in Thailand while on leave, Byeon indicated her intent to continue serving in the women’s armed forces. But her case was referred to the discharge review committee after she was classified as having a “Level-3 mental impairment” in a medical examination after she returned to her unit -- based on the fact that she is still legally biologically considered male, although she identifies as female. Byeon, who has filed a request with the presiding court to have her legal gender amended, asked for the discharge review to be postponed, and NHRCK similarly recommended that the military put off its review. But the Army Headquarters ultimately decided to go ahead with it.

Following the military’s decision to forcibly discharge her, Byeon revealed her name and face to the public, appearing in a press conference to describe her desperate situation.

“Since I was a child, it’s been my dream to become a soldier protecting this country and its people,” she said in the press conference at the education center of Center for Military Human Rights Korea (CMHRK) in Seoul’s Mapo District around noon on Jan. 22.

“I suppressed the confused feelings in my mind about my sexual identity and endured it through my service because of my dream of being a soldier dedicated to my country,” she continued.

“But the depression associated with gender dysphoria worsened, and I concluded that I wouldn’t be able to continue serving that way, if I thought it had been my earnest dream [to be a soldier],” she explained about the background behind her decision to undergo gender reassignment surgery.

Byeon also expressed gratitude toward her unit for supporting her through her gender reassignment.

“It was a very difficult decision for me to tell my unit about my gender identity, but they support my decision and me. They recommended to our higher command that I should continue serving after undergoing gender reassignment surgery. I want to thank all of my comrades for helping me,” she recalled, her eyes tearing up as she spoke.

Byeon also said, “I know the military isn’t ready to accept transgender soldiers, including me. But the military is continuing to progress in the direction of respecting human rights.”

“I also think you could anticipate a kind of synergy effect if I were allowed to service, since I’d be the only female soldier who directly experienced the life of sleeping alongside the [male] soldiers and sharing in their joys and sorrows,” she added.

But decisions by the discharge review committee take effect immediately. As of midnight that day, Byeon was forcibly discharged and returned to civilian status.

LBGT civic groups fire back to military’s decision

The CMHRK and LGBT rights groups were critical of the decision to forcibly discharge Byeon.

“We will fight to the end alongside Staff Sgt. Byeon, who boldly raised awareness of the many transgender soldiers who are quietly serving now, and the fact that there are transgender people in our military,” the CMHRK said.

Im Tae-hoon, the group’s director, said, “We plan to submit a personnel petition and, depending on the petition’s results, to pursue an administrative lawsuit and get a court’s decision.”

In a telephone interview with the Hankyoreh, Lee Jong-geol, executive committee chair for the group Rainbow Action Against Sexual-Minority Discrimination of Korea, said, “Other countries guarantee service by transgender soldiers, and the Army Headquarters’ decision runs counter to that trend.” Enlistment by LGBT persons is currently allowed in countries such as Austria, Belgium, Australia, Canada, France, and Germany. The US organization National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) estimates that over 15,000 of US soldiers are transgender persons, or over 1% of the US armed forces.

By Kim Min-je and Noh Ji-won, staff reporters

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

button that move to original korean article (클릭시 원문으로 이동하는 버튼)

Related stories

Most viewed articles