The death of South Korea’s first known transgender soldier has prompted calls for increased protections from LGBTQ+ advocacy groups.
Byun Hui-su, 23, was the first-ever transgender soldier to serve in the South Korean military. She was discharged in January 2020.
Under South Korean law, trans soldiers are not allowed to join the military, although there are no guidelines for what to do if someone begins to transition while serving.
Talking to a press conference, last year Byun said: “It was an extremely difficult decision to let my base know of my identity, but once I did, I felt much better.
“I thought I would finish serving in the army and then go through the transition surgery and then re-enter the army as a female soldier. But my depression got too severe.
“Apart from my gender identity, I want to show everyone that I can also be one of the great soldiers who protect this country.”
Hui-su was found dead at her home in the city of Cheongju on Wednesday, according to Reuters.
“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.
Kim, a close friend of Hui-su, told Reuters that February 28 would have been Hui-su’s last day if she was still serving in the military.
“She was destined to be a soldier. A military nerd, she was so knowledgeable about all things military, not just Korean troops but those in other countries, and worked so hard to restart her service,” said Kim told Reuters.
Following the death of Byun Hui-su, a debate has surfaced over the treatment of LGBTQ+ members enrolled in the army, particularly around transgender members.
Currently, South Korea requires compulsory military service from men under South Korea’s Military Service Act of 1949.
South Korea enforces national service for men, and those who are gay are viewed as having a “personality disorder” and can be discharged. A report, published in 2018, documented the levels of violence that gay and bisexual servicemen face.
Prime Minister of South Korea, Chung Se-kyun, provided condolences to Hui-su’s family. The South Korean military said her death was “unfortunate”.
The National Human Rights Commission released a statement in honour of Hui-su and her “fight against deep-rooted discrimination and hatred”.