3 Mar 2021 Cheongju, North Chungcheong (South Korea) Suicide
Byun Hee-soo was found dead at home. A year earlier she had been expelled from the South Korean army after undergoing gender confirmation surgery.
South Korea‘s first transgender soldier Byun Hee-soo has been found dead at her home, and the cause of death is not yet known.
According to South Korean news agency Yonhap, a mental health counsellor in Byun Hee-soo’s neighbourhood in Cheongju, south of Seoul, called emergency services to report that Byun had not been reachable since Sunday (28 February), and firefighters found her dead at her house at 5.49pm on Wednesday (3 March), according to police officers.
The local mental health care clinic said Byun Hee-soo attempted suicide three months ago, according to Yonhap. No suicide note was found, and police are investigating the death.
Byun, who was a tank gunner in Gyeonggi province, north of Seoul, was discharged from the army after undergoing gender affirmation surgery in January last year. She launched a landmark legal challenge against the South Korean army over her dismissal, but this was rejected in July.
Byun Hee-soo’s case triggered a debate about the treatment of the LGBT+ community, trans troops and LGBT+ soldiers in the conservative country. The Centre for Military Human Rights Korea (CMHRK) had urged the South Korean military not to discharge Byun because she could “continue to serve as a female officer”.
The CMHRK said: “It is now time for the South Korean military to set up guidelines and regulations about transgender people.”
In October 2021 a South Korean court ruled that the military acted unfairly by discharging her.
A South Korean court ruled Thursday that the military acted unfairly by discharging a female soldier for having undergone gender-change surgery, a decision that led to her suicide months ago.
Sergeant Byun Hee-soo, in her twenties, had voluntarily enlisted in 2017 and two years later underwent the intervention in Thailand. The Defense Ministry classified the removal of her male genitalia as a physical or mental disability and a committee decided in January 2020 to discharge her from the military.
Her case was a pioneer in South Korea, a country still very conservative with issues related to sexual identity and less tolerant than other Asian countries regarding LGTBI rights. The soldier filed an administrative complaint in August 2020, but seven months later she was found dead at home.
Now, the Daejeon district court (center) has ruled in her favor, saying that the army should have officially accepted her into their ranks as a woman after the surgery. The court, according to the Yonhap agency, had legally recognized her as a woman, making it impossible for the military authorities to conclude that she had "a mental or physical disability."
The defense ministry told AFP that it "respects the court's decision" but has yet to decide whether to appeal.