Seoul – A transgender South Korean soldier who was forcibly discharged from the army after sex reassignment surgery has been found dead, police said, prompting anger 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, the Yonhap news agency reported.
South Korea remains deeply conservative about matters of sexual identity and is less tolerant of LGBTQ rights than some other parts of Asia, with many gay and transgender Koreans living largely under the radar.
Byun, formerly a staff sergeant in her 20s, enlisted voluntarily in 2017, and went on to have sex reassignment surgery in 2019 in Thailand.
The Defense Ministry classified her loss of male genitals as a mental or physical handicap, and a military panel ruled last year that she would be compulsorily discharged.
At the time, she waived her anonymity to appear at a news conference to plead to be allowed to serve, wearing her fatigues and saluting the gathered journalists and cameras.
"I'm a soldier of the Republic of Korea," she said, her voice breaking.
Police confirmed her death and said they were investigating.
Reports said no note was found, but the death was being treated as suicide, with Yonhap citing officials saying she had tried to kill herself three months ago.
Her death triggered an outpouring of grief and calls for South Korean lawmakers to pass an anti-discrimination bill.
"The whole of Korean society bears responsibility for her death," said a poster on Daum, the country's second-largest web portal.
"Those who ridiculed her and made malicious online comments because she was transgender, I want you to reflect on what you did to her."
South Korea has a conscript army to defend itself against nuclear-armed North Korea, with all able-bodied male citizens obliged to serve for nearly two years.
But Byun was a volunteer noncommissioned officer and said at her news conference last year that serving in the military had always been her childhood dream.
"Putting aside my sexual identity, I want to show everyone that I can be one of the great soldiers defending this country," she continued, fighting back tears. "Please give me that chance."
Her case was the first of its kind in South Korea.
International rights groups have expressed concern about the way the country treats gay soldiers, who are banned from engaging in same-sex acts and can face up to two years in prison if caught — even though such actions are legal in civilian life.
Seo Ji-hyun, a prosecutor who triggered the country's #MeToo movement by going public over sexual harassment she suffered at the hands of her superior, declared following Byun's death: "We could have saved her. … We just had to let her live life true to who she was."
"Right now anti-discrimination bill," she added as a hashtag on her Facebook account.
A new bill was proposed last year to take on the country's deep-seated traditional social values, which are reinforced by powerful megachurches that condemn homosexuality.
The measure would ban favoritism based on sex, race, age, sexual orientation, disability or religion as well as several more unusual criteria such as criminal history, appearance and academic background.
More than a dozen attempts to pass broad anti-discrimination laws have failed over the past 14 years in the face of strong opposition from conservative churches and civic groups.
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency in Japan, please call 119 for immediate assistance. The TELL Lifeline is available for those who need free and anonymous counseling at 03-5774-0992. For those in other countries, visit https://bit.ly/Suicide-Hotlines for a detailed list of resources and assistance.
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