A transgender South Korean soldier who was forcibly discharged from the army after undergoing gender-reassignment surgery was found dead the day her tour of duty was supposed to end (Feb. 28), police said, prompting anger on Thursday and calls for legal reforms.
Firefighters found Byun Hee-soo in her home in Cheongju after a mental health counselor called emergency services to report that she had not been heard from for several days, according to the English language South Korean Yonhap news agency.
While the cause of her death has not been announced, she attempted to end her life by suicide around Christmas time, the news service reported.
“When Byun Hee-soo was kicked out of the South Korean military last year, she was devastated,” reports The Daily Beast. “She said she was told by the military that the result of her gender-affirmation surgery had been classified as a level 3 ‘mental or physical handicap.’ Serving in the Korean military had been her lifelong dream, she said at a press conference after she was dismissed, and she felt the decision to oust her over the surgery was unfair.”
“The South Korean defense department requires all healthy males to join the military for two years,” the news outlet added. “It allows females, but prohibits transgender people from serving. Because Byun was already an active-duty officer when she had gender-affirmation surgery in Thailand in 2019, she begged to be an exception.”
“I’m a soldier of the Republic of Korea,” she said at a press conference after she was removed from her regiment. “Putting aside my sexual identity, I want to show everyone that I can be one of the great soldiers defending this country. Please give me that chance.”
“Byun’s story has brought focus to South Korea’s treatment of LGBT community members,” the Daily Beast noted. “The military prohibits gay soldiers from having sex while serving, and, if caught, they face up to two years in prison. In civilian society, gay sex is not prohibited, but many in the LGBT community feel they need to live under the radar to escape scrutiny.”
“Byun’s death resonated even more with the public because the military and this society refused to acknowledge the change,” Rainbow Action Against Sexual-Minority Discrimination of Korea said in a statement after her death was announced.
Calls are now growing for the South Korean parliament to pass an anti-discrimination bill that would pave the way to better treatment of the LGBT community following Byun Hee-soo’s death.
In addition to banning transgender people from serving in the military, the country bans same-sex marriages and makes it nearly impossible for unwed couples to adopt children.
Seo Ji-hyun, a prosecutor who caused made headlines in South Korea when she went public with her experience of sexual harassment, called for the anti-discrimination bill to be brought forward.
“We could have saved her,” she wrote on Facebook. “We just had to let her live life true to who she was.”
LGBTQ+ advocates now hope Byun’s death opens a national dialogue. “The whole of Korean society bears responsibility for her death,” Daum media agency said. “Those who ridiculed her and made malicious online comments because she was transgender, I want you to reflect on what you did to her.”