Scrutinizing ‘Gender’ to ‘Transgender’ – Seonwoo Yoon


Seonwoo Yoon

Human Asia Project Intern


[Image: Hee-soo Byun during a press conference in Seoul, January 22 2020. Credit: Yonhap News)


Starting from a decision of the Korean military discharging Hee-soo Byun, who came out as trans and insisted to serve in the army as a woman, specific issues relating to trans people in Korea have sparked various disputes. In addition to this, once a 22-year-old transgender woman had passed the entrance examination for Sookmyung Women’s University and revealed her identity, some treated her as an interloper in a safe place and gave harsh criticism. This incident deterred her to give up admission. The recent aftermath of these events exposed a latent question within feminism in Korea; “What is Gender?”

In recent months, the book named <Gender Hurts> written by Sheila Jeffreys positing that “There is no gender identity to ‘transfer’ because it has not existed by nature but was made up by male power.” impacts to a great extent for some trans-exclusionary radical feminists in Korea.[1] They argue that ‘biological’ men who decide to become a woman – or transgender women – cannot be included in a group of ‘biological’ women, as ‘gender’ reassignment is a dubious action given that ‘gender’ itself is a void concept.

In order to comprehend this claim, we must first answer: what is a ‘biological woman’?  In general, we have been taught that sex is ‘biological’ and gender is a sort of ‘social’ construct. Such notions are followed in all of our international human rights mechanisms and standards, from the UDHR guaranteeing all rights and freedoms equally to the two sexes of men and women, to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women stating “all appropriate measures, including legislation, to ensure the full development and advancement of women, for the purpose of guaranteeing them the exercise and enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms on a basis of equality with men (article 3).”[2]  These imply that ‘biological’ sex can be simply divided into either man or woman, but gender is socially constructed. Considering the process of being determined a woman or man shortly after birth based on the presence of a penis and hormone levels, however, being either woman or man would also remain under the purview of preexisted dichotomous classification; the belief that we can divide people into mere two groups on the basis of sexual organs. Without mentioning the existence of intersexuality, gender can be transferred flexibly after being assigned at birth. Having been affiliated with the area where this dichotomous gender norm exerts influences, people can follow or defy it and create their own identity. Denying gender cannot be concluded to going back to ‘biological’ sex.

Of particular concern is the fact that alleged claims which ‘Young Feminists’[3] have struggled against could be broadened out again with a vengeance. Some argued that allowing trans women to study in women’s colleges would cheapen their identity and threaten the security of ‘biological’ women. They argue that trans women intensify social constructs of femininity through ‘feminine’ representation such as wearing skirts and heels, and further, that transsexual surgery transferring ‘girlish’ men into women was implemented by the male doctors who wanted to protect masculinity.[4] Of course, the existence of women’s universities and preserving it as a safe place can be justified considering apparent threats toward women. This desirable demand, however, cannot be defended through excluding and segregating transgender people. We must ask whether the fear of trans women who intended to enter college is valid. Being respectful of demand for safety and incorporating them would not be diametrically opposed views. They can go jointly with each other. To be more specific, both Smith University in the United States and Ochanomizu University in Japan have discussed the relationship between their identities as women’s colleges and the entrance of transgender individuals; and created guidelines systematically and installed gender-neutral restrooms.[5]

Separating trans people from cis people would stir up fear and arouse bigotry too. It hinders people from understanding social demands on trans people and clarifying differences among trans people, thus leading to negative confirmation bias. There are no rights for anyone to make inquiries about gender dysphoria and make them clarify their sense of identity. It is just as odd for us to explain “why we are ourselves.”[6] In addition to this, not all trans women want to represent themselves by putting on make-up, wearing skirts or heels. Yet trans women too are subjected to social demands insisting that they be ‘feminine.’ This is because questions asking who you are remain based on firm gender stereotypes, inevitably resulting in the need for them to ‘pass’. These demands are repeated in hospitals, courts, schools, workplaces, or etc. If trans women fail to abide by given social constructs of ‘femininity’ and cannot ‘pass’, they risk social rejection and therefore are forced into isolation from the all-important ‘community’ in Korea. But once separated from non-passing persons, the majority of cis straight people can posit that most members of society are the same as them. This would obscure reasonable recognition for trans people and the goal of feminism as well.

So far, feminism has advanced by destroying the premise that ‘biological’ characteristics are not destiny; women are not born to be kind, benign, fond of laughing, and love pretty dolls, poor at math or science, or etc. It has led to defeat social norms which have prevented people from exercising equal rights in the field of politics, work, health, education, or others and enabled feminism to be persisted. I would argue that scrutinizing gender again at the moment and recognizing transgender people as ‘citizens’ can traverse and move beyond the de facto gender norms. This would obscure the dichotomous classification on gender, which enables not just trans people but all to live as ourselves without social stigma. Feminism poring on the problem of power structure and having ceaseless trials to connect social minorities can foster coexisting and harmonious societies.[7]




[1] “Publication of <Gender Hurts> by Sheila Jeffreys: Transgenderism hurts?,” Fwd Critics, Feminists Research Web magazine Fwd, October 31, 2019,

[2] “Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women New York, 18 December 1979,” Professional Interest, United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner,

[3] “Young Feminist,” femiwiki, October 21, 2018,

[4] “Publication of <Gender Hurts> by Sheila Jeffreys: Transgenderism hurts?,” Fwd Critics, Feminists Research Web magazine Fwd, October 31, 2019,

[5]  Sung-soo Hong, “Early progress with regard to women’s college entrance of trans women,” SISA IN, Feb. 26, 2020,

[6] Hee-won Kim, “Transgender lawyer Han-hee Park ‘We cannot make our rights by depriving of others’’,” Hankookilbo, Feb. 20, 2020,

[7] Bora Lee, “Taking a neutral attitude toward transgender? The most dangerous thought,” KyungHyang, Feb. 21, 2020,

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