South Korean society’s invisible people

Posted on : 2020-02-16 17:47 KST Modified on : 2020-02-16 17:47 KST
Transgender people and sexual minorities often treated as if they don’t exist
Messages of support (left) and opposition for a transgender student being admitted to Sookmyung Women’s University juxtapose each other on a student message board. (Yonhap News)
Messages of support (left) and opposition for a transgender student being admitted to Sookmyung Women’s University juxtapose each other on a student message board. (Yonhap News)

Byeon Hee-su was a staff sergeant in the Republic of Korea Army; 22-year-old “K” was a freshmen law student at Sookmyung Women’s University. A number of people clung to a slender sliver of hope watching the two of them in the recent battles.

“It gives you hope just to see them coming out like that and showing that they are actually living full lives. It has a positive impact on us.”

Kim Gi-hong, co-chair of the organizing committee for the Jeju Queer Culture Festival, let out a sigh on the other end of the line during a telephone interview on Feb. 9. Kim identifies as “non-binary transgender” and has many LGBTQ friends. Last year, they had to say goodbye to one of their beloved friends. The friend, who was also transgender, had received gender reassignment surgery, but a court refused to amend her registered legal gender. For Kim, witnessing Byeon’s bravery being rewarded with a forcible discharge and K’s decision to forgo attending Sookmyung has been like experiencing the pain of losing their friend all over again.

“I’ve seen a number of my transgender friends ending their lives because of despair. Human rights are not a matter of ‘arguments for and against’ – they’re about whether you can simply see the person who’s next to you.”

Invisible to mainstream South Korean society, transgender people encounter a heavy backlash merely from declaring their intent to study or serve as members of the community. Transgender people have been familiar to the public since the transgender entertainer Harisu first appeared in terrestrial TV commercials in 2001 -- but many say society has not yet reached the point of accepting them as fellow members of their community. In a previous telephone interview with the Hankyoreh, Park Han-hee, South Korea’s first transgender attorney, blamed this on “sexual minorities being treated as though we don’t exist.”

“This sort of thing would not happen if there were the perception of these being people who exist alongside us, if transgender people were perceived as real human beings,” she said.

The cases of Byeon and K share one commonality: an individual having a legitimate place taken away from her for no justifiable reason. The problem did not lie in the institutions themselves. K was successfully admitted to Sookmyung last month as a female, having received a court’s permission to alter her legal gender in October of last year. Legally, there were no issues. But from the campus, there were complaints that it was a “stretch” for a transgender woman to call herself “female.” Byeon is also awaiting a decision after submitting a court request in December to have her legal gender amended on her family register -- but on Jan. 22, the South Korea Army decided to forcibly discharge her, ignoring her request to postpone the discharge review. It was a choice influenced by feelings of aversion and exclusion within the community.

“Rather than attempts to learn through discussions and debates, [these situations] have been resolved through forcible discharge decisions and opposition campaigns,” said Han Chae-yoon of the Korean Sexual Minority Culture and Rights Center (KSCRC).

“Many transgender people who have not been open about their presence in the past may have come away with even more of a fear that they will not be regarded as neighbors or citizens if they reveal their identity,” Han worried.

Kwon-Kim Hyun-young, a women’s studies scholar, said, “Both incidents should unquestionably be viewed as examples of phobia.”

“Institutions need to support change, but we’ve ended up with a very bad form of community as the fears of vulnerable people have intensified and fear has transformed into hate without changes being represented through the enactment of anti-discrimination legislation or education on democratic citizenship,” she concluded. It’s a situation where community deliberation is missing from the process.

S. Korea behind on transgender rights compared to international community

Internationally, a trend of acceptance of transgender identity has already taken shape through social debate. Around 20 countries allow transgender people to serve in the military. Eighteen countries, including the UK, Australia, and Germany, unconditionally allow enlistment by LGBTQ people; other countries such as Cuba and Thailand extend permissions in some cases under certain conditions. The same is true for university admissions. Many women’s universities in the US and Japan allow enrollment by transgender persons who have not undergone gender reassignment surgery or received gender reassignment in legal terms. The very level of the debate is different. Hong Sung-soo, a law professor at Sookmyung Women’s University, said, “Transgender policies need to start from the question of how to embrace people who are not reducible in terms of gender duality.”

With such individuals suffering overt exclusion and rejection in response to their courage, calls to enactment comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation appear poised to intensify as the general election approaches. Kim Hyun-mee, a professor of cultural anthropology at Yonsei University, criticized politicians for shirking their responsibilities.

“The enactment of a law banning discrimination has been deferred for the past 10 years. The social stagnation created by politicians has resulted in an approach where the issue is reduced to feelings of confrontation and exclusion among members of society,” she said.

After announcing plans to enact anti-discrimination legislation in 2007, the Ministry of Justice faced a harsh backlash. Amid subsequent objections, no bill has yet been presented before the 20th National Assembly.

By Bae Ji-hyun, Jeon Gwang-joon, and Kang Jae-gu, staff reporters

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

Caption: Messages of support (left) and opposition for a transgender student being admitted to Sookmyung Women’s University juxtapose each other on a student message board. (Yonhap News)

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