Trans soldier found dead after being discharged from South Korean army given posthumous victory

an image of staff sergeant Byun Hee-soo, South Korea's first trans soldier, during a news conference

South Korea’s first trans soldier, who was found dead earlier this year after being dismissed from the army, has been given a posthumous victory.

The Daejeon District Court ordered the cancellation of the forceful discharge of staff sergeant Byun Hee-soo, also reported in news outlets as Byun Hui-su.

Byun, who was a tank gunner in Gyeonggi province, north of Seoul, was discharged from the army in January 2020 after undergoing gender affirmation surgery.

She later launched a landmark legal challenge against the South Korean army over her dismissal, but her case was rejected in July 2020. Byun filed an administrative suit in August of that year, claiming her dismissal was constitutional.

Tragically, she was found dead in her home in Cheongju, south of Seoul, in March, just over a year after she was discharged. Her family inherited the suit after her death and continued the lengthy battle for her reinstatement.

On Thursday (7 October), the court said the army’s decision to discharge Byun was “undoubtedly illegal and should be cancelled” because it was based on the incorrect assertion that she was male.

The court said it was “obvious that the decision should have been based on the premise that [Byun] was a woman”, as well as “various factors, such as special circumstances of the military, basic rights of trans people and public opinions”.

“Since she applied for a sex change at a court and reported it to the military, she should have been considered as female when the military hospital checked whether she was fit to serve,” the court said, Yonhap News Agency reported.

According to the outlet, this is the first known legal case involving a trans soldier in South Korea.

The South Korean Army said in a statement that it “respects” the court’s ruling, and it has not decided yet if it will appeal the decision.

Byun Hee-soo’s supporters and LGBT+ advocacy groups in South Korea have welcomed the ruling.

A coalition of human rights groups, including the Center for Military Human Rights Korea, said in a statement that Byun “should be smiling brightly now after the court victory and going back to her colleagues”, but sadly “she is no longer here”.

“The ruling today is a legal triumph that corrects unjust discrimination, but it’s also a painful lesson in delayed justice,” the statement said.

Rainbow Action, an umbrella LGBT+ group in South Korea, also welcomed the court’s ruling and urged the military to “sincerely apologise and reflect” in a series of posts on Twitter.

The group added it was “happy with today’s common-sense judgment”, but it is “sad that we cannot enjoy that joy together”.

Rainbow Action also called on the country’s national assembly and the government to “continue discussions to ensure that transgender and LGBT people can serve as soldiers on an equal basis”.

The Transgender Liberation Front also called for reform on Twitter. The group said that the army “used great violence against an individual just because they were transgender cannot be erased”, adding it should apologise and “take measures to prevent recurrence”.

“It is a heartbreaking day to know that Sgt Byun Hee-soo is not with us, but we will not stop solidarity,” the group wrote. “We pray for the rest of [Byun], who always wanted to be by our side, but who only gave us courage and left.”

The Korea Herald reported the South Korean defence ministry may launch a project to review the policy on transgender military service in the future.