[Newsmaker] Military wary of lifting transgender ban despite court ruling

By Choi Si-young
  • Published : Oct 19, 2021 - 15:07
  • Updated : Oct 19, 2021 - 20:28

Protesters demand that the Defense Ministry respect a posthumous court ruling in favor of a soldier who was forcibly discharged after she received gender reassignment surgery, at the ministry headquarters in Seoul, Tuesday. (Yonhap)
Despite a court ruling in favor of a soldier who was forcibly discharged after she received gender reassignment surgery, the military is still cautious about crafting a transgender policy because it is not ready to deal with the issue, military officials said Tuesday.

In January 2020, Byun Hee-soo, who was the country’s first openly transgender soldier, was dismissed from the Army, which found her mentally and physical unfit to serve after she had her male genitals removed. Byun filed a lawsuit against the decision, but died by suicide in March this year.

“We’re all in uncharted territory here, trying to figure out what to do next with the court ruling. I can see why people on the outside could read that as reservation,” a military official said.

The military, which bars transgender people from serving and has no rules on individuals who have sex reassignment surgery after joining the military, has not opened debate on the matter since Byun’s death in March, when the defense minister said the military needed to think about the issue.

Its reluctance to act relates to the prospect of an appeal, another military official said.

On Tuesday, Defense Minister Suh Wook told the National Assembly he would like to see what the appeals court would have to say about the case, echoing similar sentiments by the Army chief of staff last week, when he told lawmakers he still stood by the decision of her dismissal.

“I can see why the military wants a second opinion on this case, regardless of whether or not the military could reverse the ruling, because scrapping the transgender ban would be a major shift in military policy,” said Shin Jong-woo, a senior analyst at the Korea Defense and Security Forum.

But Kim Borami, an attorney who represented Byun, said it would be not only pointless, but inhumane for the military to drag the case through appeals. Kim says it would force her family to relive trauma over a case that was a straightforward win for Byun.

The court ruled that Byun was a woman and the military should have used standards applied to women, not men, to determine her fitness. The court added that the government and the Assembly should introduce rules to handle transgender soldiers, like Byun.

“As a lawyer, I’m not at all worried about losing an appeal because the military doesn’t have a leg to stand on. But Byun’s family would have to endure the ordeal, the discrimination her daughter had to fight,” Kim said.

The Army described Byun as persona non grata among fellow service members if she were to continue serving, claiming that allowing her to stay on would have others see their rights curtailed because they would have to make sacrifices for Byun.

“This isn’t even legalese. It’s venting,” Kim said, adding the military’s argument, which was a reflection of a larger culture that rarely takes initiative when it comes to expanding soldiers’ rights, would only alienate the appeals court. “We’ve won but it hardly feels like a real win.”

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