[Reporter’s notebook] Will there be a day when we live in a world without discrimination?

Posted on : 2021-03-14 11:34 KST Modified on : 2021-03-14 11:34 KST
Letter to late Staff Sgt. Byun Hee-soo
Forcibly discharged transgender soldier Byun Hee-soo poses for a portrait on March 11, 2020. (Kang Jae-hoon/The Hankyoreh)
Forcibly discharged transgender soldier Byun Hee-soo poses for a portrait on March 11, 2020. (Kang Jae-hoon/The Hankyoreh)

I requested an interview with you after you were forced out of the military in January 2020 for having undergone gender confirmation surgery. After hearing that you were too mentally and physically exhausted to see anybody for the time being, I considered that you might be fearful of appearing before people.

I could certainly understand that, given the widespread hatred and discrimination directed at LGBTQ people in South Korean society. I sent the message that I would respect your choice not to meet, and that seemed to be the end of that.

But a month later, you contacted me, telling me you had recovered from your exhaustion. It was almost exactly one year ago that we met on March 11 at the Center for Military Human Rights Korea in Seoul’s Sinchon neighborhood.

That interview became a front page story on the Hankyoreh’s Saturday edition of March 21, 2020, under the title “‘I could eliminate that discrimination with an armored attack, LOL.’” In it, you said, “I will not stop fighting. To achieve human rights and freedom for LGBTQ people and to create a discrimination-free military, I will fight in the vanguard — just like the armored unit’s motto, the ‘armored vanguard.’”

It was a characteristic response from someone who loved driving tanks. You also said that you needed to “make money quickly, since I’m not eligible for the military pension.”

“I like an ordinary life, doing things like games and shopping,” you explained, adding that you were “a homebody who doesn’t really go outside much.”

“I like to spend time alone, as long as I’ve got my computer and Nintendo. I also like webtoons,” you also said.

I smiled at the image this conjured up in my head — a bright and cheerful 23-year-old. But I also felt somewhat relieved to know that this sort of everyday life was also a symbol of confidence and courage.

Beyond your boldness, you also showed profound consideration for others and a deep understanding of community life. You felt a sense of betrayal toward the military’s senior leadership — the ones you said had “blindsided” you. But on behalf of your colleagues and the junior tank drivers, you also asked the military and government to make improvements to the equipment.

“What I really want to ask for is air conditioning in the tanks,” you said at the time.

I was also struck by your reflection on a past incident from your middle school days, when you protested Japan’s claims of ownership over Dokdo by placing a Japanese “Rising Sun” flag on the road in your hometown of Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province, and inviting passersby to step on it.

“When I think about it now, it was really nationalistic of me,” you said.

You really got to the heart of things when you said, “Even people in the ‘majority’ may have certain minority aspects. They might be a labor union member or belong to a minority religion. But when we turn a blind eye to discrimination against minorities at times like that because we see ourselves as ‘the majority,’ there won’t be anyone left to help us when we’re the ones being persecuted as minorities.”

I wanted to ally myself with your courageous and generous battle, and after the article went into publication, I called and texted from time to time to check in. I also sent you writings and articles expressing support.

The last time was early last month, with news that the National Human Rights Commission of Korea had recommended that the Army and Ministry of National Defense overturn your discharge. I sent you a link to the article, and your response was as cheerful as ever. “Yes, I’m doing well!! Thank you!” you wrote back.

I’m still in a fog after the sudden news that you left us behind, never to return. I’ll never again see you crouching down to approach and pet a cat on the street or stopping to admire the potted flowers by the front gate of a house on a Sinchon side street, even when you knew they were artificial.

There are feelings of regret. I ask myself, might it have been some kind of help if I had called you up to ask about your situation that day instead of just texting. Why couldn’t I have shown my support more actively when I had the chance?

And then there is the anger that I feel to see you finally succumbing after your pledges to “never be defeated.” Anger at the military for stubbornly disregarding repeated NHRCK recommendations. Anger at the Moon Jae-in administration for never moving forward from the military’s discriminatory stance, despite having itself emerged out of the candlelight revolution. Anger at the Democratic Party for failing to even present anti-discrimination legislation before a National Assembly standing committee, despite holding an overwhelming 174-seat majority. Anger at politicians spewing hateful remarks about LGBTQ people, such as Ahn Cheol-soo’s insistence on “also respecting the right to reject that sort of thing [queer parades].” They have been even worse offenders than all the anonymous hatemongers.

A week before your death, Kim Gi-hong — co-chair of the organizing committee for the Jeju Queer Culture Festival — also took his own life. The two of you will never be alone again.

Have you seen the bottles of alcohol and the envelopes of condolence money that people have placed outside the door of the house where you lived? It is small gestures like those that will come together to tear down the walls of discrimination and hatred.

Rest in peace.

By Kim Jong-cheol, senior staff writer

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

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