South Korea’s Transgender Community Pushes for Recognition and Acceptance

South Korea’s Transgender Community Pushes for Recognition and Acceptance
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

What you need to know

The issue of transgender discrimination was once again brought into the spotlight earlier in 2021, following the suicide of a soldier who was forcibly discharged from the military after a gender reassignment surgery.

By Stella Jang

South Korea’s transgender community are repressed, underrepresented, and often overlooked. Government identity documents and surveys do not capture sex and gender diversity, meaning there are no official statistics. It is estimated there are around 6,000 transgender people in South Korea, though this is based on the small sample of individuals who have gained legal recognition following a gender reassignment surgery.

Discrimination against transgender people in South Korea is commonplace and complicates finding employment, pursuing education, and using public facilities. Some of the most difficult experiences relate to conscription, where all males are required to undergo a medical examination to determine their body’s suitability for military service, and navigating other areas of society based on binary genders, such as female-only educational institutions.

One solution to promote greater tolerance and acceptance of transgender people is to implement laws that protect individuals from discrimination. But repeated attempts since 2007 to pass an anti-discrimination law through the National Assembly have failed. Anti-LGBTQI groups are vocal opponents of enshrining equality in law, which would have a broader impact beyond stopping discrimination based on sexual orientation but also based on gender, disability, and race.

South Korea’s legal and institutional systems are based on heteronormative binary genders that reinforce traditional gender roles. While it is possible to legally change genders in South Korea following the landmark case of celebrity Harisu in 2002, there are a set of restrictive criteria that must be satisfied.

These include that the individual must have undergone a gender reassignment surgery, which automatically excludes the estimated 90% of South Korea’s transgender community who have not altered their biological sex. Even for those who do undergo the process to alter their legal identity, they can face significant problems as it is not possible to change their national identity number assigned at birth that indicates their birth gender.

More recently, the issue of transgender discrimination was once again brought into the spotlight earlier in 2021 following the suicide of Byun Hee-soo, a soldier who was forcibly discharged from the military after having a male-female gender reassignment surgery. Byun’s case highlighted the stigma and problems transgender persons face in South Korea, with the military ruling that her loss of male genitalia amounted to a physical and mental disability. Her experience showed that military culture has not changed and the irony of excluding an individual who desperately wanted to serve when so many try to evade military service.

While Byun’s forcible discharge was recently ruled as unlawful and cancelled by the Daejeon District Court following her death, it is unlikely to give any comfort to those considering gender reassignment surgery that they will not be discriminated against by their employer.

Members of South Korea’s transgender community are using social media to break down social barriers and promote acceptance. Several transgender vloggers have gained large followings. For example, Pungja TV allows ordinary South Koreans to learn about the daily life of a male to female transgender individual. One set of popular videos features Pungja meeting a grandmother who asks questions to satisfy her curiosity about transgender people.

Transgender people have also started to enter the broader consciousness of society with the 2020 hit drama Itaewon Class featuring a character on the path to gender reassignment surgery. There was a muted public reaction to a transgender person being featured in a prominent TV series. This shows some progress compared to 2012 when KBS, one of South Korea’s largest broadcasters, abruptly cancelled XY She after only one episode. XY She featured transgender women discussing their lives, but there was an immediate backlash against KBS after the first episode, which was used to justify cancelling the series.

One interesting reflection from the limited portrayals of transgender people in South Korean television is that there are few depictions of transgender men. While Harisu and Byun Hee-soo became national figures and raised awareness of transgender women, there have not been any prominent transgender men in public life.

South Korean society may have a harder time accepting transgender men due to patriarchy and women being considered subordinate to men. Difficulties with conceptions of transgender men may explain why the creators of Itaewon Class opted to depict a transgender woman when it would have been easier for the actor cast to have played a transgender man. Lee Joo-young, the actress who played the transgender woman on Itaewon Class, would have been naturally suited to play a transgender man having been cast in numerous tomboyish roles. But a depiction of a trans man would have been a riskier choice.

There is a long way to go before South Korea becomes an inclusive society, but members of the transgender community’s efforts to raise awareness and share their stories are helping to facilitate some cultural change. While efforts at promoting change from below are important, help from above through government policies and institutional change is required as well.

Stella Jang is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Sydney.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from East Asia Forum. East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centered on the Asia Pacific region.

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