Landmark legal ruling for South Korean transgenders
Posted on : Mar.16,2013 10:53 KST
With court ruling, surgery to alter genitals is no longer necessary to change one’s legal gender status
By Um Ji-won, Park Hyun-jung, staff reporters
A court ruled on Mar. 15 that transgender individuals can change their legal gender status without undergoing genital surgery.
Seoul Western District Court ruled in favor of accepting requests from five female-to-male transgender individuals to have their family register listing altered to be classified as male. None of the five has undergone operations to surgically alter their sex organs.
The five filed their request in December, arguing that the demand for surgery to conform to the changed gender status constituted the main barrier to approvals and violated the spirit of the legal gender modification system, which is to guarantee the Constitutional rights of transgender people.
One of the five, identified by the initial "K," was born with a female body, but started identifying as male when he was a teenager. In the 1990s, he underwent surgery to remove his breasts and uterus and began taking male hormones, leaving him with a thick beard, deep voice, and stocky build. He has lived with his wife for the past two decades, but he has not gone through the final step of the sex change, namely surgery on his genitals. Not only is the procedure dangerous, with a high risk that it will require multiple operations, but it also costs the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars.
K looks like a regular male, but his resident registration number begins with a "2," which indicates legal female status (male registration numbers start with 1). He cannot go to work at companies that demand a career history with a resident number, so he does deliveries and other temporary jobs. When he has gone to hospitals and government offices in the past, the employees there have looked at his ID and said, "This can't be you." Going to vote is out of the question. He and his wife have not filed a marriage notice.
K and others like him ended up left out in the cold even after the Supreme Court rule in 2006 that transgender people could alter their legal gender status. According to guidelines for approval the Court drafted the following year, individuals have to possess "external genitalia of the opposite sex" from their biological one.
According to the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Legal Research Association, an organization of attorneys and activists for the human rights of sexual minorities, no country but Japan is known to require genital surgery as a condition for altering one's legal gender status. Countries like Great Britain, Germany, Spain, and Argentina do not even require surgery to remove reproductive capabilities. The US federal government does not demand any operations at all for gender status changes on passports and immigration documents.
Last January, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health sent an opinion to Seoul Western District Court arguing that genital surgery should not be a requirement because it is not medically necessary and is a difficult procedure with a strong risk of side effects and other negative consequences.
On hearing the news that the request was granted, an excited K said it was "almost revolutionary for members of sexual minorities like us."
"Once I've altered the gender on my family registration, the first thing I'm going to do is announce mine and my wife's marriage," he added.
Han Ga-ram, an attorney with Korean Lawyers for Public Interest and Human Rights, which represented K and the other transgender individuals, said that with no Supreme Court rulings or laws existing to reflect the latest decision, calls for changes to the law were likely to intensify.
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