This report presents information on public opinion about transgender people and their rights in South Korea. We analyzed data from The Global Attitudes Toward Transgender People survey, South Korea panel to provide information on views toward transgender people, their rights, and their status in society. This report:
- describes attitudes toward transgender people and their rights and status in society,
- investigates associations between individual-level participant characteristics and public opinion, and,
- fills gaps in the current literature on public opinion regarding transgender people in South Korea.
Previous surveys of South Korean adults have indicated that public opinion about lesbian and gay people is much more negative compared with public opinion about other minority groups, such as migrant workers and North Korean defectors.Public attitudes toward transgender people may be similar to attitudes toward lesbian and gay people. However, no research has been conducted on public opinion regarding transgender people and their rights in South Korea. Research in other countries has found that factors such as individuals’ contact with transgender people, as well as their gender and age have been found to predict significantly higher rates of support for transgender rights. However, the available literature is sparse, and additional research is needed, particularly research utilizing representative samples from the general population, to build a better understanding of attitudes towards transgender people and their rights.
Public discourse about transgender population in South Korea grew dramatically at the beginning of the 21st century. This was due, in part, to coverage by the Korean media in 2001 of a celebrity named Risu Ha who came out as a transgender woman in a national commercial. The focus on Risu Ha sparked attention towards transgender people in South Korea.Since that time, the public has become more familiar with the term transgender and issues affecting transgender people as the transgender rights movement has become increasingly organized. Portrayals of transgender people in the media have largely been limited to stereotypes of transgender women that do not accurately reflect the diverse experiences of transgender women or of transgender people more broadly.
South Korea does not have comprehensive anti-discrimination laws; however, sexual orientation is included as a protected class in the anti-discrimination clause of the National Human Rights Commission Act. Although gender identity is not explicitly included as a protected class under the law, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea has interpreted the prohibition of discrimination based on sexual orientation to cover discrimination on the basis of gender identity and against transgender people.
Transgender people can change their legal gender on identification documents with a court decision, which is issued if individuals meet strict requirements including undergoing gender-affirming surgery, sterilization, being 19 years old or older, not being married, and other requirements.Though there are no legal barriers to receiving gender-affirming care, Korea’s national health insurance system does not cover this care. Options for transgender people to access gender-affirming care are, therefore, limited in South Korea.
Regarding family formation, transgender people may marry a person of the opposite gender but only after their gender change has been legally recognized, and while the Constitution does not restrict marriage to only between a man and a woman, there are also no affirmative laws regarding whether transgender (or cisgender) people can marry a person of the same gender.Despite the lack of a definitive legal stance on same-sex marriage, courts have yet to issue or recognize same-sex marriages in South Korea. In addition, there are no laws regarding whether transgender people are allowed to conceive or give birth, nor whether they can adopt.
While military service in South Korea is mandatory for all “able-bodied men,” different standards apply to transgender women and men.Transgender men, even those whose gender transition has been legally recognized, are generally exempt from service as their masculinity is considered lower than that of cisgender men. Transgender women whose gender transition has been legally recognized are exempt from service. However, most transgender individuals at the age of conscription have not undergone a legal gender reassignment recognition process due to the strict requirements for such a legal recognition. Thus, most transgender women either have to join the military under their sex assigned at birth, as they are considered male, or have to get legal exemption from military service through a diagnosis of “[severe] gender identity disorder.”