A South Korean serviceman sacked by the military after undergoing gender-changing surgery has been found dead, sparking a wave of dismay and calls for an anti-discrimination law.
Byun Hee-soo’s body was found at his home in Cheongju, south of Seoul, on Wednesday, South Korean news agency Yonhap reported. An investigation was entrusted to the police, who confirmed his death to AFP. According to media reports, no words have been found but his death is considered suicide, according to Yonhap. The agency, citing officials, said it had already attempted suicide three months ago.
An army with conservative ideas
Byun Hee-soo, a sergeant in his twenties, voluntarily enlisted as a man in 2017, before undergoing sex reassignment surgery in Thailand in November. Compared to many countries in Asia, South Korea remains deeply conservative on issues of gender identity, and same-sex relationships between military personnel are subject to prosecution. She had then clearly communicated to her superiors of her desire to remain in the army.
A military commission had ordered in January 2020 his dismissal from the military institution, the Ministry of Defense considering that the loss of his genitals constituted a mental or physical handicap.
After his dismissal, Byun Hee-soo came out of anonymity to plead his case. “I am a soldier from the Republic of Korea,” the soldier had said in a trembling voice. In uniform, she had explained that serving in the army was a childhood dream. But she said she suffered from depression due to “gender dysphoria” – a deep sense of inadequacy between her body and her gender identity.
No open discussion
“I want to show everyone that no matter what my gender identity, I can be one of those great soldiers who defend the country.” “Please give me this chance”, implored the young woman. Conscription still exists in South Korea, where the army is mainly assigned to the protection of the territory in the face of the threat from the North. Every fit man is required to have two years of military service. Byun Hee-soo was the first South Korean soldier to undergo such an operation while on duty.
Deputy Defense Ministry spokesman Moon Hong-sik offered his condolences on the “regrettable death”. He said, however, that there were no in-depth discussions on the issue of transgender soldiers, despite calls from personalities and associations. More than a dozen attempts to adopt anti-discrimination laws have failed over the past 14 years, in particular because of the opposition of powerful churches which condemn homosexuality and of certain associations.