Dead Transgender Soldier Wins Case Against Army Over Her ‘Illegal’ Discharge

The South Korean military had argued that her loss of male genitals amounted to a disability.
Junhyup Kwon
Seoul, KR
October 7, 2021, 12:16pm
Transgender, soldier, south korea, lgbtq, military
BYUN HEE-SOO WAS SOUTH KOREA’S FIRST TRANSGENDER SOLDIER. Photo: AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon, File

South Korea’s first transgender soldier has won a court case against the country’s army, months after she killed herself following her dismissal from the military.

A South Korean court ruled on Thursday it was unfair for the army to forcibly discharge the former staff sergeant, Byun Hee-soo, over her gender confirmation surgery, and ordered the decision canceled. The ruling came seven months after the transgender solider died by suicide in March, before the first hearing.

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Byun had the surgery while on leave in 2019 and wished to continue serving as a woman. But military officials discharged her the next year, arguing that her loss of male genitals amounted to a mental and physical disability. 

But the Daejeon District Court said it’s reasonable to recognize Byun as female, according to a document seen by VICE World News.

“When based on standards on women, the loss of male genitals can’t fall under the reason of a mental and physical disability,” the court said. “The discharge is illegal without needing further investigation considering the premise defining the loss of genitals is the disability.”

The army said that it respected the court’s decision but has yet to decide whether to appeal.

Human right organizations and civic organizations welcomed the Thursday ruling.

“Today’s judgement will remain in history and will be remembered as a milestone across the barrier of discrimination and prejudice and as a step towards a better society,” the Center for Military Human Rights said in a statement.

Transgender Liberation Front, a trans rights group, said, “The trial is meaningful in that it reminded the society of her courage in revealing the existence of transgender people in the military.”

The two organizations called on the army to give up the appeal and apologize.

Park Han-hee, South Korea’s first transgender lawyer, told VICE World News that the country should make further efforts to welcome transgenders into its military, saying it needs to create a system and guidelines for transgender soldiers.

And that would not be enough, Park said.

The lawyer pointed out that the court recognized Byun as a woman because she had the gender confirmation surgery and afterwards filed a court request to correct her sex on record.

But, she said, “Transgender people should be able to be recognized by their gender identities as they wish, regardless of whether they have had the surgery.”

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