Transgender rights in military service
Updated: May 11, 2022
The U.S. is not the only country where one's gender identity can disqualify them from military service. This past week, Byun Hui-Su, a South Korean transgender woman, was discharged from the South Korean military. The former staff sergeant is now planning to pursue legal action and wishes to return to service.
Cisgender women are allowed to serve, and make up for more than 10,000 members of the South Korean military. However, because Byun underwent sex reassignment surgery, the government considers her to have a “mental and physical disability” that disqualifies her from service.
South Korea has a ways to go in terms of LGBT+ rights. Not only does the country fail to have marriage equality, the military also goes so far as to punish some same-sex relationships with up to two years in prison. Article 92-6 prohibits “indecent acts” such as sodomy.
The South Korean government claims that it does not exclude gay and transgender people from serving. Although Article 92-6 does not explicitly discriminate LGBT+ citizens from serving, the military has yet to investigate or convict heterosexual members for engaging in the same behaviors that would have booted LGBT+ members out.
Like the U.S., South Korea holds their service members to stringent physical and mental standards. This leads to the argument that it is irresponsible or dangerous to allow transgender people to serve just as it would be irresponsible to let someone with a disabling physical condition into the military. We also see this sentiment in the U.S. as well, with President Trump enacting the transgender military policy just last year.
Of course, military service for any country is demanding physically and mentally. It would be naive to say that every country should lift all medical standards and requirements for joining the military, but gender identity should not be a potential disqualifier. In three years of allowing transgender people into the United States military and granting access to gender-affirming care during their service, there has not been a valid sign for concern for allowing transgender service members. It can be easy to assume that transgender people are mentally unfit for service because gender dysphoria is a mental condition. However, gender dysphoria is not a mental illness, and there is no evidence that it prevents successful service. If this were the case, the U.S. would have let go of all service members with gender dysphoria instead of cutting off access to hormones or gender-affirming surgery.
While many other cisgender Korean men actively try to postpone their mandatory military service, Byun is willingly marching to the front lines. Her previous service has demonstrated her competence, and her strides to continue her service further confirm her capability to serve her country.