Sookmyung Women’s University’s first transgender student faces discriminations both on and off campus

Posted on : 2020-02-03 17:58 KST Modified on : 2020-02-03 17:58 KST
Students post hateful messages and send letter of protest to student council
The main gate of Sookmyung Women’s University. (Hankyoreh archives)
The main gate of Sookmyung Women’s University. (Hankyoreh archives)

“I was so scared all day long. My emotions are a wreck after all the insults I’ve been hearing.”

The voice of the 22-year-old, identified by the initial “K,” was trembling on the other end of the line. In October of last year, K was granted a court’s permission to alter her registered legal gender after undergoing gender reassignment surgery in Thailand the preceding August. On Jan. 30, it was reported by the news agency Newsis that she had received final admission to the college of law at Sookmyung Women’s University.

The response was a torrent of opposition to her enrollment from both within and outside the university. On the campus community page, posters wrote that she “should stay out of a space that’s meant for women,” that it was “farfetched for transgender females to call themselves ‘women,’” and that “this sort of uproar would never have happened if transgender people had stayed quiet in the first place.” After reports that the Sookmyung student council would be holding a meeting to announce a position on K’s enrollment, one student sent a protest email to the council.

“Students are very scared and angry right now over the enrollment of a transgender ‘male,’” she wrote. “Does the student council speak unilaterally for [only some] students without reflecting the students’ positions?”

K is well aware of the reports. In telephone interviews with the Hankyoreh on Jan. 31 and Feb. 3, she said, “It’s been infuriating for me to see responses where people have been saying my admission should be disallowed for the sake of women’s rights because I’m a ‘man’ representing the societal majority, or that I didn’t ‘properly undergo’ gender reassignment surgery.”

“I’m concerned about whether I can even register for classes, since I’ll be faced with hostility if I do enroll,” she added.

At the same time, she remained adamant that LGBTQ issues require societal visibility. Prior to K’s admission to Sookymung, a controversy erupted over the forcible discharge of Staff Sgt. Byeon Hee-su from the Republic of Korea Army after her gender reassignment surgery. After taking leave from her military service in December of last year to undergo male-to-female gender reassignment surgery in Thailand, Byeon announced her intent to continue serving in the women’s armed forces -- but on Jan. 22, the army decided to forcibly discharge her. K witnessed the response from the public at the time.

“Some of the responses to Staff Sgt. Byeon were people saying things like, ‘She can just live quietly. Why is she giving interviews and making this into a big deal?’” she recalled.

“I was taken aback by that response, and it also made me angry. I think it’s really misguided for the majority, or for other minorities, to argue that a certain minority should live in secrecy because of the discrimination and contempt they’ll face if they reveal their identity, and for certain minorities to simply accept that.”

The discrimination against K really began before she was assigned the title of the “first transgender student accepted to a women’s university.” In September 2019, a month before she received a court’s permission to alter her registered legal gender, she visited her local office of education to apply for the college entrance examination. Dressed in a dress at the time, she was told by an office staff member that she should “dress normally on test day, as it might make the other students uncomfortable if you arrive dressed like you are now.” In the end, she put away her skirt and sat for the test in casual clothes.

“I don’t think that even a cisgender male [one whose biological gender conforms to his own perceived identity] should have to hear that sort of thing,” K said.

“In that sense, it was disconcerting for me,” she recalled.

Gained courage to be transgender from S. Korea’s first transgender attorney

K gained the courage to live as a transgender person after reading an interview with attorney Park Han-hee that was published in edition No. 1159 of Hankyoreh 21 in April 2017. Park is South Korea’s first transgender attorney, having undergone male-to-female gender reassignment.

“Reading that article had a huge impact on me. I really felt like I shouldn’t diminish myself because of what other people thought,” she said. “After that, I decided that after I become a lawyer, I want to help socially disadvantaged people who are isolated from the law.”

Now K has to decide whether to submit her registration fees and tuition and register for classes at Sookmyung Women’s University by Feb. 7. If she does go ahead with enrollment as she hopes, K plans to engage in various activities to share the message that everyone is a “minority” in some sense or another.

“I’d like to see a society that is capable of embracing everyone more,” she said.

“People can’t be the majority in every area -- in certain situations, they can only be the minority. I think it’s obvious that if you don’t want to face discrimination and contempt in circumstances where you’re the minority, you should show consideration for minorities with different identities in other circumstances,” she continued.

Kwon-Kim Hyeon-yeong, a women’s studies researcher and visiting professor at the Korea National University of Arts, explained, “Gender isn’t something you determine based on a person’s appearance.”

“Furthermore, if Sookmyung Women’s University is a women’s university, there are no grounds legally for it to refuse K as a woman. So it’s correct that the objections from a portion of Sookmyung students constitute discrimination,” she added.

“They think that they can achieve a sense of spatial stability within a women’s university through discrimination, but at the same time they are disregarding values such as diversity within women’s universities,” Kwon-Kim also said.

“At this moment, there are probably people at Sookmyung Women’s University who don’t view themselves as female, or who don’t know whether they are female are male,” she continued. “Those acts show a complete lack of understanding for the existence of those people as well.”

Han Chae-yoon, an activist with the Korean Sexual Minority Culture and Rights Center, said, “For everyone, there’s such a thing as ‘being yourself,’ yet as soon as people are born our society forces a definition of ‘male’ upon them.”

“Even though K is a woman, society assigned her a ‘1’ on her resident registration number and has forced her to live as a man. When people insist that she’s a ‘man’ even after she has found her own gender and resolved to live as she truly is, they’re basically telling her to live with the gender assigned to her by the state,” Chae added. “Why can’t a person live as she or he chooses?”

“If we have a controversy over someone who has legally completed gender amendment procedures, where is someone like her supposed to live?”

By Kang Jae-gu, staff reporter

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