[Reporter’s notebook] Late transgender soldier Byun Hee-soo’s battle continues

Posted on : 2021-04-25 10:47 KST Modified on : 2021-04-25 11:10 KST
The cause that Byun launched is starting to gain momentum
Members of the group the Joint Committee for Byun Hee-soo and lawyers representing Byun’s family for the lawsuit hold a press conference in front of the Daejeon District Court on April 15. (Kim Jong-cheol/The Hankyoreh)
Members of the group the Joint Committee for Byun Hee-soo and lawyers representing Byun’s family for the lawsuit hold a press conference in front of the Daejeon District Court on April 15. (Kim Jong-cheol/The Hankyoreh)

“Please write down your gender.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Just write down ‘male’ or ‘female’ here.”

A number of questions ran through my head. They don’t mean to seat men and women separately in the gallery, do they? What does gender have to do with handing out tickets for gallery seating at a trial?

But since people were scrambling for the tickets, I jotted down my gender as requested.

Ignoring the jealous looks of people who didn’t get a ticket, I entered the remote gallery. (To allow social distancing, half of the spectators were seated in an adjacent courtroom to watch a live broadcast of the trial.) Needless to say, no attempt was made to separate men and women in the gallery.

After sitting in my designated seat, questions kept popping into my head. Why are we still slotting people into male and female when there’s a wide range of genders, including transgender, intersex and nonbinary? Why are they making a point of tracking gender when it’s not necessary information?

More to the point, wasn’t this very trial begun by the late Byun Hee-soo, who lost her life while fighting against obsolete and discriminatory sexual stereotypes in Korean society? No doubt the officials at the court just drew up the typical admission form, but it was painful to see the hidden barriers to gender identity in Korean society.

Oh Yeong-pyo, a senior judge in the second administrative division at the Daejeon District Court, had agreed to hear a lawsuit filed by Byun’s family, who wanted the South Korean military to reverse its decision to discharge her. The hearing I attended was held on the morning of April 15.

The courthouse gallery was crowded with spectators and reporters, reflecting social interest in the issue. Byun’s parents were also present, determined to make their daughter’s wishes a reality.

The first hearing did little more than outline several points being debated in the trial, including whether there were any procedural issues with Byun’s discharge and whether her gender confirmation surgery had represented a ‘physical and mental disability,’ as the military claimed when it forcibly discharged her.

But what happened in the courtroom on that day showed that the lawsuit is not just a legal squabble over Byun’s forcible discharge but rather part of a larger battle in Korean society to eliminate stereotypes and discrimination against minorities. The courtroom remarks made by the judge advocates representing the army and the documents they prepared showed how backwards the army is.

While the judge advocates expressed condolences for the late Byun, they continued to defend the legitimacy of the army’s decision to forcibly discharge a soldier for removing her male sex organs.

The documents prepared in advance read as follows: “Pursuing the human rights of a single individual while disregarding the human rights of a large number of other people can be seen as incompatible with the unique nature of the military, whose ultimate purpose is successfully carrying out missions by prioritizing national security and preserving the morale of all members so they can work at peak fighting ability.”

“While considering the plaintiff’s right to the pursuit of happiness, we must not ignore other people’s right to the pursuit of happiness,” the same documents said.

Such remarks run counter to human rights by encouraging discrimination and by assuming that the human rights of Byun after her gender confirmation surgery were in tension with the human rights of the other soldiers.

That’s the same logic advanced by Ahn Cheol-soo, former lawmaker, when he said that “the right to dislike and to reject [the queer culture festival] should be respected.”

South Korea’s military seems ignorant of the fact that such remarks give hate groups an excuse to discriminate against minority groups. Protecting the human rights of minorities isn’t an option to be endorsed or rejected, depending on the interests of the majority; rather, it’s itself an independent goal that we must strive to achieve.

The judge advocates also made the following comments: “Even if Byun had been transferred to a different unit, she would have had trouble integrating after unit members learned about her gender confirmation surgery and she might have become an object of curiosity. The issue of integration with her unit would have constrained the utility and necessity of Byun’s military service.”

“If anything, discharging Byun exempted her from her duty to perform military service,” the judge advocates said, in a leap of logic.

The assumption that Byun would be an “object of curiosity” is out of date and shows how the military leadership is out of touch with changes occurring inside the military. The members of Byun’s unit and her superior officers supported her decision and hoped she’d return to the unit.

The South Korean army also sought to rebut the fact that 20 countries, including the US, Germany, and Israel, allow transgender soldiers to serve in the military. “Considering that there are 193 member states in the UN, the reality is that the majority of countries restrict military service by transgender soldiers,” the army said, in a value-free and regressive interpretation of the facts.

While the military is hastily throwing up a barricade of discrimination and prejudice, Byun is no longer alone, as she was when she was forcibly discharged from the military early last year. In Seoul alone, 20 supporters of Byun’s lawsuit chartered a bus to attend the hearing.

“It’s unfortunate and anachronistic that minorities still have to fight for recognition of their civil rights. We intend to be on hand to see Byun’s courage get results,” said Myeong Suk, a member of the Activist Group for Human Rights “Baram.”

“I want to let people know the injustice of what happened to Byun,” said Park Edhi, a transgender activist.

“I’m here to show that lots of people are watching Byun’s struggle,” said Im Yu-gyeong, one of the people who rode the charter bus to Daejeon.

The cause that Byun launched is starting to gain momentum.

By Kim Jong-cheol, senior staff writer

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

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