A transgender South Korean soldier who was forcibly discharged from the army after gender-reassignment surgery has been found dead, police said, prompting anger Thursday and calls for legal reforms.
Firefighters found Byun Hee-soo in her home in Cheongju after a mental health counselor called emergency services to report that she had not been heard from for several days, Yonhap news agency reported.
South Korea remains deeply conservative about matters of sexual identity and is less tolerant of LGBT rights than some other parts of Asia, with many gay and transgender Koreans living largely under the radar.
Byun, formerly a staff sergeant and in her 20s, enlisted voluntarily in 2017. She went on to have gender-reassignment surgery in 2019 in Thailand.
The defense ministry classified the removal of her male genitals as a mental or physical handicap, and a military panel ruled last year that she would be compulsorily discharged.
At the time she waived her anonymity to appear at a press conference to plead to be allowed to serve, wearing her fatigues and saluting the gathered journalists and cameras.
“I’m a soldier of the Republic of Korea,” she said, her voice breaking.
Police confirmed her death to AFP and said they were investigating.
Reports said no note was found but the death was being treated as suicide, with Yonhap citing officials saying she had tried to kill herself three months ago.
Byun’s death triggered an outpouring of grief and calls for South Korean MPs to pass an anti-discrimination bill.
“The whole of Korean society bears responsibility for her death,” said a poster on Daum, the country’s second-largest portal.
“Those who ridiculed her and made malicious online comments because she was transgender, I want you to reflect on what you did to her.”