Nation faces dilemma on gender changes In middle school in the late 1980s, "Ok-hee" found talks about sex to be an absolute taboo and firmly outside the bounds of polite conversation. There was no one to confide in or help him explore the possibility that he was a girl born in the wrong body. His parents glared at any initial signs of effeminacy and never raised the issue in conversation. The rejection within his family was fully reflected in society at large. After graduating from high school in 1990, he grew his hair long and started shaving his legs and wearing women's clothes, but these only exacerbated his internal conflict. These feelings of displacement and uncertainty only receded after he actually underwent sex change surgery in 1994, becoming a woman. "Since I was a little boy, I subconsciously knew I was a girl," the 35-year-old in a light-yellow dress, who now goes by the female name Ok-hee, told The Korea Herald. Some of Ok-hee's new male friends became lovers, although she never saw these as homosexual relationships but the way everything should have been. Now she works in central Seoul's sex industry. "It's sad that this - working in the sex industry - has become a route for transgender people because we need the money for the expensive surgery," said Ok-hee, who dropped out of college before her surgery. "I knew college would not give me space to explore what I sensed was my true self." She said the operation costs between 10 million and 100 million won ($10,500$105,000). But Ok-hee's identification card still says she is male, and this, says Ok-hee, needs to be changed. "It limits us from doing anything we want, making us embarrassed of who we are; therefore social prejudice remains the same," she said. Indeed, the fact that society has begun to grapple openly with these issues suggests how profoundly absorbing the subject is. The Supreme Court opened its first-ever hearing on the issue last month on whether the new sex of transsexuals needs to be reflected on official documents such as ID cards and family registration. Three transsexuals filed final appeals at the nation's top court after district courts rejected their motion. The court is scheduled to make a ruling Thursday. Ever since transgender pop star Harisu released her first album in 2001, there have been increasing numbers of legal suits by transsexuals, requesting legal recognition of their new sex. Decisions are currently made on a case-by-case basis by district courts. There were rulings on 15 cases approving legal gender switches in 2005, and 10 in 2004. There is no definitive estimate of the number of transsexuals living in the country, but the Seoul-based transgender advisory group, Princess World, says at least 70,000 Koreans have undergone therapy and surgery to make the transition either from male to female or female to male. Some religious groups, however, are strongly opposed to the legal recognition of transsexuals, arguing that human beings do not have the right to choose their sex upon their will. "It is not like I don't understand the transgender issue because I do," said Rev. Park Young-ryul, president of Christian Institute for National Development, who was invited to the Supreme Court hearing. "But there are just certain things that human beings cannot do. Only God has the right to decide gender and the origin of life." Rev. Park defined the requests by the transsexuals as "haughty," and warned that serious chaos would arise in society if the Supreme Court gives the goahead for legal gender change. "This is a matter of being homosexual. The sex chromosome does not change permanently after surgery. It will only encourage more homosexuality and AIDS in the nation," Rev. Park said. "Those who are confused about their sex and gender need psychiatric therapy, not surgery." Dr. Lee Moo-sang, a urology professor at Yonsei University's Medical College said during last month's hearing that biological events can sometimes get out of sync. Biologically, girls inherit one X chromosome from each parent and, under the influence of the female hormone estrogen, psychologically consider themselves female. Boys inherit one X and one Y chromosome and under the influence of testosterone psychologically consider themselves male. Encouraging the Supreme Court to legally recognize their new sex, the doctor called for the government to set up a system to coordinate psychiatric and surgical treatment for transsexuals. Lee Tae-hyuk, president of Princess World who is currently in Bangkok, Thailand, for research, also called for early sex education at schools as about 80 percent of the transsexuals he has met has regrets. "They hold the third sex, neither male nor female," Lee said. "They are homosexual people. They want to rationalize themselves by becoming the opposite sex." He explained that in most cases, transsexualism is not natural, but acquired depending on the person's family background or childhood experiences. "If a boy cannot be athletic like other boys, he starts feeling sexual disjunction," Lee said. "Then he has an illusion that he should have been a girl. The same thing applies for transgenders who transition from female to male." Lee said the issue of legal sex change is nonsense. "The reason why this is such an issue in Korea is because society does not accept gay and lesbian culture. If the country is more open-minded toward homosexuals, this isn't so much of an issue." But Lee still believes there will be more transsexuals in the future. "I'm happy with who I am now," Ok-hee said. "Although everyone told me it would be a disaster, sometimes in your gut, you know something is right." Hoping to become a successful businesswoman in the future, she once had another fantasy - marrying the man of her dreams. "Of course I thought about getting married to a wonderful prince," Ok-hee said. "But as I become serious about the relationship with a man, I get worried that I could ruin his life. A normal family requires a baby, and I cannot have one."
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