Dr. Kim Seok-Kwun is known as the "father of South Korean transgender people," and he is the leading surgeon performing sex reassignment surgeries in South Korea. Despite his own strong Christian beliefs, he says he has come to the decision that performing SRS for his patients is the right thing to do, even if it earns him ire from evangelical Christians in the very religious East Asia nation.
He has conducted about 320 sex change operations over the last three decades, which is believed to be the most by any single doctor in South Korea. Kim first started doing the surgeries in the 1980s when he was approached by several trans women who asked the facial reconstruction surgeon to design vaginas for them. At first, Kim was hesitant to do so, both for religious reasons, and because he wasn't sure he was capable of the complex genital reconstruction, but he finally relented.
I've decided to defy God's will...At first, I agonized over whether I should do these operations because I wondered if I was defying God. I was overcome with a sense of shame. But my patients desperately wanted these surgeries. Without them, they'd kill themselves....
Kim says that his pastor at the time objected to his decision, and that friends and fellow doctors would joke he was "going to hell," although not everyone is joking. Sex reassignment surgeries "are a blasphemy against God and make the world a more miserable place," said the Rev. Hong Jae Chul, president of the Seoul-based Christian Council of Korea. As to Kim's defense of his views? Hong calls it "cursed and deplorable." Kim, however, feels confident that he is making a real difference in the lives of trans people because he is correcting God's mistakes.
Some people are born without genitals or with cleft lips or with no ears or with their fingers stuck together. Why does God create people like this? Aren't these God's mistakes? And isn't a mismatched sexual identity a mistake, too?
LGBT+ rights are only recently developing in South Korea. Tension persists between sexual minorities, Confucian beliefs that children should not alter the bodies they've been bequeathed by their parent, an evangelical Christian community, and the formerly military-backed governments which felt it unnecessary to listen to the voices of marginalised groups.
Transgender people who want to legally change their gender marker can find it difficult to do so. Korea has judge made law and the Supreme Court of Korea has ruled judges should only allow such changes for those who have SRS, are sterile, are unmarried, and have no children. This is nearly identical to many other countries across the world, including some European countries as well as nearby Japan. However, there have been about 35 exceptions to this standard granted by more liberal judges. These judges are often sought out specifically for their histories of precedent.
Like many surgeons performing SRS, Kim requires candidates to have letters from two psychiatrists showing a diagnosis of gender identity disorder (now gender dysphoria in some countries). Although increasingly uncommon in places like the United States, Canada, and some European countries, one year of a "real life test" is required, where one lives entirely as their actual gender prior to surgery. This is fairly typical of the transgender standards of care. What's unusual is that Kim also requires the patients get parental approval, although that is very much in line with Korean cultural norms.
Harisu is the transsexual entertainer known as Kim's most famous patient. For her, like many others, sex reassignment surgery is life and death.
If I had lived as a man without undergoing a sex change operation, I might be dead already. I was already a woman except for my genitals. I didn't want to live an awkward life with those genitals ... I'm a woman, so I wanted to live as a woman.
Image via AP.