When Byun Hee-soo was kicked out of the South Korean military last year, she was devastated. 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.
On Feb. 28, the day her tour of duty would have ended, she was found dead in her apartment in Cheongju, south of Seoul, 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.
The South Korean defense department requires all healthy males to join the military for two years. 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 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.
Her death has prompted calls for the South Korean parliament to pass an anti-discrimination bill that would pave the way to better treatment of the LGBT community. 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 a stir 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.”
Seoul’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family announced in February that it plans to propose changes to civil and welfare regulations so single parents and unmarried, cohabitating partners can become legal families—but only heterosexuals.
Advocates now hope Byun’s death opens 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.”
If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.