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Transgender Korea: The body as a battleground

By David Tizzard and Han Jeongmun

Han Jeongmun and David Tizzard
Han Jeongmun and David Tizzard
Dr. Kim Seok-kwan is a name that many might not know, but he is a revolutionary figure for some in South Korean society.

The doctor pioneered sex-change surgery in the traditionally conservative country, doing so as far back as 1986 when South Korea was still under the authoritarian rule of former army general President Chun Do-hwan.

Following a series of repeated requests for operations, Dr. Kim left Korea and studied the field and related procedures at the University of California, Davis in the United States. He did so despite the vehement objections of his wife, Presbyterian minister, and his colleagues in the medical field.

When he returned, motivated by a desire to comfort and heal those suffering from gender dysphoria, Dr. Kim kept the prices of the operations relatively low so as to make them available to those in need.

Perhaps his most famous client was Harisu ― the country's first ever transgender idol. Harisu signed with TTM Entertainment, featured in a 2001 television commercial for DoDo cosmetics, and even reached number 23 in the pop charts with her track "Liar."

In December 2002, the court in Incheon District legally recognized Harisu as female. In doing so, the judge presiding over the case declared that the Korean constitution guarantees individuals "the right to pursue happiness and dignity."

When the decision was upheld by 8 out of 10 Korean Supreme Court judges, it was decided that five specific criteria were required for people to be legally recognized as having changed their gender.

The person must have felt he or she belonged to the opposite sex throughout adulthood; they need to be living biologically and socially as that gender; they must have undergone both counselling and surgery and they must be recognized as that gender by their family and friends.

In terms of legal responsibilities, the Supreme Court decided that the person will obtain all the rights and obligations of the new gender - including draft responsibilities for those changing from female to male. However, any legal obligations present before the change will also still apply.

A history worth remembering from where we stand today.

The 2017 Ipsos Global Attitudes Toward Transgender People was the first ever study undertaken on the public opinions of transgender people and their rights in South Korea. It found that -- despite the claims the country is deeply homophobic - the majority of people here actually supported certain positions.

A majority of the respondents (59.1%) believed that people should be allowed to have surgery so that their physical body matches their identity. Moreover, 56.9% of the people said that transgender people should be protected from discrimination.

Such figures are supported by the BBC's Hyung Eun Kim who says that the continued and growing presence of LGBT Parades are evidence that the country is in fact changing - albeit not as fast as some would like.

Two recent stories have brought the issue to the forefront of public consciousness again: Byun hui-soo underwent a male-to-female sex change operation in Thailand and was subsequently discharged from the military despite wishing to continue serving; and at Sookmyung Women's University a 22-year old who also underwent a male-to-female operation in Thailand was recently accepted to the law department before deciding to withdraw her application.

The application of the trans-gendered women to Sookmyung provoked incendiary reactions from those studying at women's universities around the country. Some welcomed the arrival, but others were far less hospitable.

One of the reasons for the antagonistic position taken by some was that they do not see transgender women as 'biological' women. Moreover, it was considered a step-backwards for women's rights that they had fought so hard to obtain over the recent years.

Since the country's feminist movement exploded onto the scene following the tragic and senseless murder of an innocent female victim at Gangnam Station in 2016, women's rights and how to seek them has been a source of national discussion - appearing on the internet, the national assembly, pop songs, and even best-selling books and movies.

The movement has looked into why these essential rights had been so long in coming, mistakes that had been made in the past, and looked towards goals and objectives for the future. A catchphrase that encapsulated it was, "Girls can do anything".

One of the biggest tasks was to challenge and confront deeply-established social norms of the feminine and masculine. No easy task for a society with a strong Confucian tradition in which "bu-bu-yu-byul" (the separation of a wife and husband's jobs) has long been advocated.

At the same time the "escape the corset" movement grew to prominence, particularly online. This encouraged women in Korea to stop wearing make-up, feminine clothes, and growing their hair long in order to meet societal expectations which were deemed unfair.

And this is where one of the more interesting arguments came in from those opposing the entrance of the student to the university: Are transgender people a threat in that they solidify the social norms of what it means to be feminine and masculine by having the operation?

They argue that if a man wants to grow his hair and wear make-up, why not do it as a man? Why do such things have to be associated only with the female?

Does this qualify the female students of the women's universities as TERFs (trans exclusionary radical feminists)? Are such labels and terms helpful for the discussion or do they simply encourage further polarization and discrimination?

Considering that many of these female students have very few places in which they feel safe in Korean society, exacerbated by the traumatizing and persistent spy-cam incidences which invade even the most private of spaces, should we not be a bit more understanding of their personal and theoretical positions rather than simply dismiss them with derogatory terms?

Unfortunately, for the most part, we primarily encounter transgender people through the media, and this likely distorts our views of the transgender community as a whole - particularly regarding their intentions, personality, and individual desires.

This is relevant in the case of the university student who remained, by choice, anonymous. Anonymity leads to deindividualization, which in turn lessens self-restraint and the willingness of people to follow a mob mentality when choosing sides and making decisions.

Transgender people are not inherently good or bad. They are people and, just like in any other group related to sex or gender (straight, homosexual, queer, and so on), there will be people who deserve our respect and people who don't. Thus, it's important we see them as individuals and make our decisions on that basis.

Excluding transgender people from the current norms of sexuality is rather like saying they are not 'normal women' nor 'normal men'. But when it comes to normality, where do such definitions and justifications for being "not normal" arise from?

When the saying "girls can be anything" is used to refute the conventional norms of gender, is it only applicable to biological women? If so, then transgender people will not be accepted as either men or women.

Thus, if women continue to select biological criteria for finding homogeneity and similarity between themselves, the societal role they occupy, created by a largely patriarchal system, will become even more solidified. Surely this is not the goal.

Excluding transgender people will only provoke further contest among people in the non-male societal domain when, for many here in South Korea, the real problem is with certain male-dominated social norms that have arisen and been in place since neo-Confucian reforms in the second half of the Joseon Dynasty.

If problems stem from traditional views declaring that "women (or men) should be like this or that", we should not support positions or actions that replicate the current system. Instead, it would be better to start thinking about what changes are needed for a better future.

In doing so, we have to remember that individual human choices should be permitted and respected. Choosing our own identity and deciding what kind of person we want to be in this world is a very personal process and should not be interfered with, providing we are not impeding on the liberty of others.

Society demonstrably evolves when we discuss minority rights. We made great strides with the Civil Rights Movement and when we supported women with expressions of "with you" vis-a-vis the victims of the Me Too movement.

For the transgender people in Korean society, right now it seems they have few places in which they can exist comfortably and the above mentioned incidents might make them even more afraid to stand up in society. While true gender equality for women might seem some way off, there is always more we can do in the meantime.

South Korea is a society embracing individualism. And so it should be for all individuals.


Han Jeongmun studies Fashion Marketing at Seoul Women's University.

David Tizzard (datizzard@swu.ac.kr) is an assistant professor at Seoul Women's University and lectures in politics and history and Hanyang University. He presents economic and cultural issues on "Business Now" on TBS eFM (101.3FM) live every Wednesday from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.



By David Tizzard and Han Jeongmun

Han Jeongmun and David Tizzard
Han Jeongmun and David Tizzard
Dr. Kim Seok-kwan is a name that many might not know, but he is a revolutionary figure for some in South Korean society.

The doctor pioneered sex-change surgery in the traditionally conservative country, doing so as far back as 1986 when South Korea was still under the authoritarian rule of former army general President Chun Do-hwan.

Following a series of repeated requests for operations, Dr. Kim left Korea and studied the field and related procedures at the University of California, Davis in the United States. He did so despite the vehement objections of his wife, Presbyterian minister, and his colleagues in the medical field.

When he returned, motivated by a desire to comfort and heal those suffering from gender dysphoria, Dr. Kim kept the prices of the operations relatively low so as to make them available to those in need.

Perhaps his most famous client was Harisu ― the country's first ever transgender idol. Harisu signed with TTM Entertainment, featured in a 2001 television commercial for DoDo cosmetics, and even reached number 23 in the pop charts with her track "Liar."

In December 2002, the court in Incheon District legally recognized Harisu as female. In doing so, the judge presiding over the case declared that the Korean constitution guarantees individuals "the right to pursue happiness and dignity."

When the decision was upheld by 8 out of 10 Korean Supreme Court judges, it was decided that five specific criteria were required for people to be legally recognized as having changed their gender.

The person must have felt he or she belonged to the opposite sex throughout adulthood; they need to be living biologically and socially as that gender; they must have undergone both counselling and surgery and they must be recognized as that gender by their family and friends.

In terms of legal responsibilities, the Supreme Court decided that the person will obtain all the rights and obligations of the new gender - including draft responsibilities for those changing from female to male. However, any legal obligations present before the change will also still apply.

A history worth remembering from where we stand today.

The 2017 Ipsos Global Attitudes Toward Transgender People was the first ever study undertaken on the public opinions of transgender people and their rights in South Korea. It found that -- despite the claims the country is deeply homophobic - the majority of people here actually supported certain positions.

A majority of the respondents (59.1%) believed that people should be allowed to have surgery so that their physical body matches their identity. Moreover, 56.9% of the people said that transgender people should be protected from discrimination.

Such figures are supported by the BBC's Hyung Eun Kim who says that the continued and growing presence of LGBT Parades are evidence that the country is in fact changing - albeit not as fast as some would like.

Two recent stories have brought the issue to the forefront of public consciousness again: Byun hui-soo underwent a male-to-female sex change operation in Thailand and was subsequently discharged from the military despite wishing to continue serving; and at Sookmyung Women's University a 22-year old who also underwent a male-to-female operation in Thailand was recently accepted to the law department before deciding to withdraw her application.

The application of the trans-gendered women to Sookmyung provoked incendiary reactions from those studying at women's universities around the country. Some welcomed the arrival, but others were far less hospitable.

One of the reasons for the antagonistic position taken by some was that they do not see transgender women as 'biological' women. Moreover, it was considered a step-backwards for women's rights that they had fought so hard to obtain over the recent years.

Since the country's feminist movement exploded onto the scene following the tragic and senseless murder of an innocent female victim at Gangnam Station in 2016, women's rights and how to seek them has been a source of national discussion - appearing on the internet, the national assembly, pop songs, and even best-selling books and movies.

The movement has looked into why these essential rights had been so long in coming, mistakes that had been made in the past, and looked towards goals and objectives for the future. A catchphrase that encapsulated it was, "Girls can do anything".

One of the biggest tasks was to challenge and confront deeply-established social norms of the feminine and masculine. No easy task for a society with a strong Confucian tradition in which "bu-bu-yu-byul" (the separation of a wife and husband's jobs) has long been advocated.

At the same time the "escape the corset" movement grew to prominence, particularly online. This encouraged women in Korea to stop wearing make-up, feminine clothes, and growing their hair long in order to meet societal expectations which were deemed unfair.

And this is where one of the more interesting arguments came in from those opposing the entrance of the student to the university: Are transgender people a threat in that they solidify the social norms of what it means to be feminine and masculine by having the operation?

They argue that if a man wants to grow his hair and wear make-up, why not do it as a man? Why do such things have to be associated only with the female?

Does this qualify the female students of the women's universities as TERFs (trans exclusionary radical feminists)? Are such labels and terms helpful for the discussion or do they simply encourage further polarization and discrimination?

Considering that many of these female students have very few places in which they feel safe in Korean society, exacerbated by the traumatizing and persistent spy-cam incidences which invade even the most private of spaces, should we not be a bit more understanding of their personal and theoretical positions rather than simply dismiss them with derogatory terms?

Unfortunately, for the most part, we primarily encounter transgender people through the media, and this likely distorts our views of the transgender community as a whole - particularly regarding their intentions, personality, and individual desires.

This is relevant in the case of the university student who remained, by choice, anonymous. Anonymity leads to deindividualization, which in turn lessens self-restraint and the willingness of people to follow a mob mentality when choosing sides and making decisions.

Transgender people are not inherently good or bad. They are people and, just like in any other group related to sex or gender (straight, homosexual, queer, and so on), there will be people who deserve our respect and people who don't. Thus, it's important we see them as individuals and make our decisions on that basis.

Excluding transgender people from the current norms of sexuality is rather like saying they are not 'normal women' nor 'normal men'. But when it comes to normality, where do such definitions and justifications for being "not normal" arise from?

When the saying "girls can be anything" is used to refute the conventional norms of gender, is it only applicable to biological women? If so, then transgender people will not be accepted as either men or women.

Thus, if women continue to select biological criteria for finding homogeneity and similarity between themselves, the societal role they occupy, created by a largely patriarchal system, will become even more solidified. Surely this is not the goal.

Excluding transgender people will only provoke further contest among people in the non-male societal domain when, for many here in South Korea, the real problem is with certain male-dominated social norms that have arisen and been in place since neo-Confucian reforms in the second half of the Joseon Dynasty.

If problems stem from traditional views declaring that "women (or men) should be like this or that", we should not support positions or actions that replicate the current system. Instead, it would be better to start thinking about what changes are needed for a better future.

In doing so, we have to remember that individual human choices should be permitted and respected. Choosing our own identity and deciding what kind of person we want to be in this world is a very personal process and should not be interfered with, providing we are not impeding on the liberty of others.

Society demonstrably evolves when we discuss minority rights. We made great strides with the Civil Rights Movement and when we supported women with expressions of "with you" vis-a-vis the victims of the Me Too movement.

For the transgender people in Korean society, right now it seems they have few places in which they can exist comfortably and the above mentioned incidents might make them even more afraid to stand up in society. While true gender equality for women might seem some way off, there is always more we can do in the meantime.

South Korea is a society embracing individualism. And so it should be for all individuals.


Han Jeongmun studies Fashion Marketing at Seoul Women's University.

David Tizzard (datizzard@swu.ac.kr) is an assistant professor at Seoul Women's University and lectures in politics and history and Hanyang University. He presents economic and cultural issues on "Business Now" on TBS eFM (101.3FM) live every Wednesday from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.





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