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South Korea’s first trans soldier found dead a year after being booted out of the army

Maggie Baska March 3, 2021
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Trans soldier pleads with South Korea military to let her continue serving

South Korea's first trans soldier, Byun Hee-soo, has said she will battle a ruling that she can no longer serve in the military. (Screen capture via YouTube)

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.”

Byun Hee-soo’s attempts to be reinstated into the military had been unsuccessful

In February, Kim Borami, an attorney representing Byun Hee-soo, told The Korea Herald that the legal team had been asking for the courts for a date, but there had been no answers. Kim said: “Two weeks ago, I asked the court again for a date, and that’s all I’ve been doing for the past months, but no answer

“I really don’t know what’s taking so long.

“It’s been a painful time for Byun and me.”

Last year, Byun Hee-soo had described her decision to transition after years of distress and bouts of depression to reporters at a news conference in Seoul after the military announced its ruling. She said: “It was an extremely difficult decision to let my base know of my identity, but once I did I felt much better.

“I thought I would finish serving in the army and then go through the transition surgery and then reenter the army as a female soldier.

“But my depression got too severe.”

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