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South Korea court orders trans sergeant reinstated in posthumous ruling

Byun Hui-su was first active duty soldier to have sex reassignment surgery

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Daejeon District Court (Photo via Google Earth)

Republic of Korea (ROK) Army Staff Sgt. Byun Hui-su was a tank driver who simply wanted to continue to serve her country in the military. But she also wanted to serve as her authentic self, a 23-year-old trans female and that is where the problem arose.

She was stationed in Gyeonggi Province, north of Seoul and in January of 2020, after she had made a trip to Thailand in 2019 for gender reassignment surgery and notified her superiors that she wanted to transfer to the ROK Army female corps, the ROK Army summarily discharged her for being trans.

She took the Army to court with the assistance of the Center for Military Human Rights Korea, a civic group, who had filed a petition alleging Byun’s forced military discharge was a discrimination against transgender people. The National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK) in December of 2020 concluded the ROK Army’s decision in January to discharge her as opposed to allowing her to continue to serve in the military as a female soldier had no legal grounds.

In a highly emotional press conference after the ROK Army had announced its decision to discharge her from active duty, Byun broke down in tears as she described the decision to undergo surgery after suffering from gender dysphoria, which medical experts define as distress from the internal conflict between physical gender and gender identity.

“I will continue to fight until the day I can remain to serve in the army,” she said. “I’ll challenge the decision until the end, to the Supreme Court,” she told reporters.

The case had brought widespread media attention both in South Korea and overseas because she was the first known trans ROK Army active-duty soldier to have sex reassignment surgery.

Yonhap News Agency had reported that the ROK Army’s discharge decision was based on the fact that the staff sergeant’s loss of male genitalia placed her in the Level 3 physical disability under the ROK military law and rendered her unable to serve as a result.

Staff Sgt. Byun Hui-su at a press conference in January 2020. (Screenshot via Yonhap News Agency)

The majority of the NHRCK commission disagreed with the ROK Army’s findings and concluded the discharge was unlawful “because there is no legal basis for applying physical disability ratings to transgender people.”

The commission also found that the ROK Army’s finding of her case as a physical disability was incorrect and contravened human rights law, since she underwent the sex reassignment surgery not because of an accident but because of her gender identity.

This past week in a bittersweet moment, the Daejeon District Court said that as her trans gender was already legally recognized, the ROK Army should have used standards applied to women to determine her fitness to serve.

Ruling in Staff Sgt. Byun Hui-su’s favor, the court noted: ‘When based on standards of women, there are no mental or physical disability grounds for dismissal.” The court then ordered the ROK Army to reinstate her.

Sadly there was no celebratory acknowledgement because on March 3, 2021, she took her own life and was discovered deceased by emergency officials at her home in the city of Cheongju, south of the South Korean capital city of Seoul.

“Byun’s death resonated even more with the public because the military and this society refused to acknowledge the change,” Rainbow Action Against Sexual-Minority Discrimination of Korea, an umbrella association of group of 40 sexual minority groups, said in a statement upon learning the news of her death.

In a statement released after the Daejeon District Court’s ruling, the Center for Military Human Rights Korea said that the case took far too long to reach such a “natural and common-sense result.”

“I believe this ruling is meaningful as it is the start of the discussion that could pave the way for all transgenders and sexual minorities in South Korea to serve in the military like other citizens,” an activist with Solidarity for LGBT Human Rights of Korea, who uses the name Osori to campaign, told Reuters.

The ROK Army said in a statement that it respected the court’s decision, but has yet to decide whether to appeal, and it would conduct a comprehensive review before deciding a course of action Reuters noted.

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Petition urges White House to develop plan to protect LGBTQ Afghans

Taliban regained control of country on Aug. 15

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Two men in Kabul, Afghanistan, in July 2021 (Photo courtesy of Dr. Ahmad Qais Munzahim)

More than 10,000 people have signed a petition that urges the Biden administration to do more to help LGBTQ Afghans who remain in Afghanistan after the Taliban regained control of the country.

The Human Rights Campaign; the Council for Global Equality; Immigration Equality; Rainbow Railroad; the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration and the International Refugee Assistance Project on Friday presented to the White House the petition that urges the administration to adopt “a 10-point action plan … to expedite and ease the refugee and asylum process for LGBTQI Afghans.”

The same six groups last month urged the Biden administration to adopt a plan that would “prioritize the evacuation and resettlement of vulnerable refugee populations, including LGBTQI people, and ensure that any transitory stay in a third country is indeed temporary by expediting refugee processing.” The groups, among other things, asked the White House to “speak out forcefully against human rights abuses by the new Taliban regime and any increased targeting of vulnerable communities, including LGBTQI people, and use existing mechanisms to sanction and hold accountable perpetrators of human rights abuse.”

The Taliban entered Kabul, the Afghan capital, on Aug. 15 and regained control of the country.

A Taliban judge in July said the group would once again execute people if it were to return to power in Afghanistan.

Rainbow Railroad and Immigration Equality are among the other groups that have continued their efforts to evacuate LGBTQ Afghans since American troops completed their withdrawal from the country on Aug. 30. Some of the 50 Afghan human rights activists who Taylor Hirschberg, a researcher at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health who is also a Hearst Foundation scholar, has been able to help leave the country are LGBTQ.

“We reiterate our call for President Biden to adopt the 10-point policy plan which will expedite and ease the refugee process for LGBTQI Afghans,” said Human Rights Campaign Senior Vice President for Policy and Political Affairs JoDee Winterhof in a press release. “The 10,000+ people who signed our petition have demonstrated that they want the United States, long a beacon of refuge for those fleeing persecution, to take action to protect LGBTQI Afghans—a vulnerable group who risk oppression, even death, simply for who they are or who they love. Now is the time for action.”

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Putin describes transgender rights as ‘crime against humanity’

Russian president made comment in Sochi speech

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Russian President Vladimir Putin (Photo public domain)

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday described transgender rights as “a crime against humanity.”

The Washington Post reported Putin made the comment in a speech he delivered in Sochi, a resort city on the Black Sea where the 2014 Winter Olympics took place.

Putin specifically said the idea that children are “taught that a boy can become a girl and vice versa” is “on the verge of a crime against humanity.” Putin, according to the Post, also said trans activists are demanding an end to “basic things such as mother, father, family or gender differences.”

Activists in Russia and around the world have sharply criticized the Kremlin’s LGBTQ rights record, including a 2013 law that bans the promotion of so-called gay propaganda to minors. Putin also has close ties to Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, who is behind a brutal anti-LGBTQ crackdown in the semi-autonomous Russian republic.

The European Court of Human Rights in July ruled Russia violated the rights of a trans woman who authorities prevented from visiting her children because of her gender identity. The decision is the first time the court used Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights in an anti-trans discrimination case.

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Report details anti-LGBTQ discrimination, violence in Kenya refugee camp

March 15 attack left gay man dead

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Ugandan refugees, gay news, Washington Blade
The Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya (Photo by the E.U. Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations via Flickr)

A new report released on Wednesday indicates nearly all of the LGBTQ people who live in a Kenya refugee camp have experienced discrimination and violence because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

The Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration and Rainbow Railroad in May 2021 surveyed 58 LGBTQ asylum seekers who live at the Kakuma refugee camp and the Kalobeyei Integrated Settlement that opened in 2016 to help alleviate overcrowding at Kakuma. The groups also interviewed 18 “key informants.”

More than 90 percent of the LGBTQ asylum seekers who spoke with ORAM and Rainbow Railroad said they have been “verbally assaulted.”

Eighty-three percent of them indicated they suffered “physical violence,” with 26 percent of them reporting sexual assault. All of the transgender respondents “reported having experienced physical assault,” with 67 percent of them “reporting sexual assault.”

Eighty-eight percent of respondents said they had been “denied police assistance due to their sexual identity.” Nearly half of the respondents told ORAM and Rainbow Railroad they had to be “relocated from their allocated shelters to alternative accommodation due to the constant abuses directed at them by neighbors.”

Kakuma, which is located in northwest Kenya near the country’s border with Uganda and South Sudan, is one of two refugee camps the U.N. Refugee Agency operates in the East African nation. The other, Dadaab, is located near Kenya’s border with Somalia.

The report notes upwards of 160,000 refugees from South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Ethiopia and Uganda were living in Kakuma as of January.

Those who responded to the ORAM and Rainbow Railroad survey are from Uganda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, South Sudan, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Yemen and Ethiopia and all of them have asked for asylum in Kenya. Ninety-four percent of them live in Kakuma, while the remaining six percent live in Kalobeyei.

The report also estimates there are 350 LGBTQ asylum seekers in Kakuma and Kalobeyei. UNHCR in 2020 created Block 13 in Kakuma that is specifically for LGBTQ refugees.

Gay man died after Block 13 attack

Two gay men suffered second-degree burns during an attack on Block 13 on March 15. One of the men died a few weeks later at a hospital in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital.

Forty-one of the Block 13 residents who participated in the ORAM and Rainbow Railroad survey said that “relocation to a safer place as a priority.” The report also notes some respondents who live outside Block 13 “said that the activism in Block 13 was affecting the overall relationship between LGBTQI+ asylum seekers and service providers in the camp.”

“They expressed concern with some activities conducted as part of their activism,” reads the report. “For example, they alleged that some activists were conducting staged attacks on individuals and false claims of violence to attract media attention as part of their advocacy.”

The report notes “allegations of activity from activists in Block 13 have not been confirmed.” Some of the “key informants” who ORAM and Rainbow Railroad interviewed for their report, however, “observed that LGBTQI+ activists from different countries have been supporting the advocacy in Block 13 without considering the local context and potential negative or unintended consequences.”

“They allege that the advocacy has been antagonizing LGBTQI+ members with other refugees in the camp and service providers,” reads the report. “For example, some of the LGBTQI+ asylum seekers were reported to have deserted their allocated shelters, moved to Block 13 and were persistently demanding new shelters.”

An attack at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya on March 15, 2021, left two gay refugees with second-degree burns. One of these men later died. (Photo courtesy of Gilbert Kagarura)

UNHCR in a statement after the March 15 attack noted Kenya “remains the only country in the region to provide asylum to those fleeing persecution based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression,” even though consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized. The ORAM and Rainbow Railroad report acknowledges both points.

“Asylum seekers and refugees in Kenya are not immune to pervasive anti-LGBTQI+ attitudes in the community,” it reads. “As the number of LGBTQI+ asylum seekers and refugees increases rapidly, it is important to understand their unique protection needs and plan for safe and dignified service delivery to meet those needs.”

The report notes more than 70 percent of respondents have gone to Kakuma’s main hospital the International Rescue Committee operates in order to receive HIV/AIDS-related services. More than 85 percent of respondents said they “preferred to seek all other health services beyond HIV and AIDS services at the main hospital, since the facility was friendly and provided a stigma-free environment for the LGBTQI+ community in the camp.”

“Respondents reported traveling long distances in order to visit the main hospital,” reads the report.

The report notes limited access to cardiologists and other specialists at the eight health facilities in the camp that UNHCR partner organizations operates. Roughly a third of respondents also said they have “been stigmatized in some of the health clinics.”

“This included being referred to as shoga (a derogatory Kiswahili term used to refer to homosexuality) either by staff members or other refugees in the waiting room while waiting to see a provider, or some providers just directing them to the main hospital with snide remarks about how they do not entertain LGBTQI+ persons in their facility,” reads the report.

The African Human Rights Coalition, the Refugee Coalition of East Africa and Upper Rift Minorities are among the other groups that work with the camp’s LGBTQ residents.

The report notes only a third of respondents “were actively engaged in economic activity at the time of the study, a majority depended on the food rations distributed in the camp.” It also contains 10 recommendations, which are below, to improve conditions for LGBTQ refugees in Kakuma.

1) The Refugee Affairs Secretariat of Kenya must fast-track refugee status determination of LGBTQ asylum seekers with further support from UNHCR and civil society organizations.

2) The Refugee Affairs Secretariat of Kenya and UNHCR must create more responsive and sensitive protection services for LGBTQ refugees in Kenya.

3) Civil society organizations and their supporters should provide livelihood support and other support to meet the immediate needs of LGBTQ refugees in Kakuma.

4) Governments of resettlement countries must resume and fast track resettlement of LGBTQ refugees from Kenya.

5) UNHCR and civil society organizations must continue to build skills development programs for employability.

6) LGBTQ civil society organizations should work more closely with refugee-led organizations and collectives to build self-protection services.

7) Donor communities should participate in more long-term development programming for LGBTQI+ refugees in Kenya.

8) LGBTQ civil society organizations providing support to refugees in Kenya must coordinate more closely.

9) LGBTQ civil society organizations and refugee-led organizations should continue to advocate for more inclusive human rights in Kenya.

10) Civil society must continue the push for LGBTQ human rights globally, including decriminalization of same sex intimacy.

“This much-needed report underscores the challenges, dangers and complexities of life that LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers face in Kakuma refugee camp,” said ORAM Executive Director Steve Roth in a press release that announced the report’s release. “The refugees themselves have spoken and they want to be heard. UNHCR, governments and civil society organizations must work together to ensure the immediate safety and well-being of this community while also addressing the longer term, durable solutions we recommend in the report.”

Rainbow Railroad Executive Director Kimahli Powell added refugee camps cannot “become permanent solutions to crises of forced displacement.”

“The findings of this report confirm a key goal of Rainbow Railroad—to fast track resettlement of LGBTQI+ refugees,” he said. “Rainbow Railroad and civil society partners are ready to provide support to LGBTQI+ persons at risk and assist in further resettlement. Ultimately, we need the UNHCR, the government of Kenya and governments of countries that are destinations for refugees to step up an ensure that LGBTQI+ asylum seekers in the camp are resettled in safer countries.”

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