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[ENTERTAINMENT]Defying the Stigma of a Gender Change

June 01,2001
In Korea, where until the late 19th century many men refused even to cut their hair out of extreme filial piety, it is still almost taboo, or at best something very experimental, for an entertainer to acknowledge homosexuality.

It is therefore no surprise that Hong Seok-cheon, a popular TV actor, was replaced in a television role after his announcement of his homosexuality about six months ago. Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation banned his appearance as a host on a children's program, saying that it was not good for children to see a homosexual as the host of an educational program.

But Koreans have begun to show curiosity, albeit sometimes with antagonism, for these kinds of "different" people. Though people do not entirely approve of homosexuals and transgender individuals, there are indeed signs of change in public opinion.

Ha Ri-su, a 22-year-old woman who changed her sexual identity just a few years ago, is becoming a popular figure on the local entertainment scene.

Born as a male, Ms. Ha says that she had many difficulties living for 19 years in a male's body, and that male identity never seemed natural to her. "I was mentally a natural woman from the very beginning of my life. I used to wear makeup, too, in my high school days, which my mother bought for me," said Ms. Ha.

Despite the femininity she felt internally, however, she found others reluctant to accept her as a woman. After finishing high school, she decided to change her life by undergoing a sex-change operation, and displayed publicly what she felt was her true identity. Now, Ms. Ha's biological makeup matches the gender she has identified with all her life, though legally her national identification number still starts with 1, indicating a male. Ms. Ha says that the effects of the operation have been liberating. After the operation, Ms. Ha said she felt ready to make her second dream come true, to pursue a career as a singer and an actress.

She originally intended to kick-start her career in Japan, where she believed there was more tolerance of "different" people. But a lucky break earned her a spot in a domestic TV commercial for cosmetics. The commercial played on her transgender, picturing her as a bewitching woman, but later displaying her Adam's apple. The commercial scored with shocked but fascinated audiences.

Afterward, she won a starring role in the film "Norang Meori 2" ("Yellow Hair 2"), set for release in mid-July. Also, she is rumored to be preparing a debut vocal album. A documentary on her life will air in four episodes from June 11 to 14 on the Korean Broadcasting System (channel 7).

Ms. Ha may be a heroic trailblazer for sexual minorities, or she may just be a novelty to sell on the entertainment scene. Her true impact as a star cannot yet be determined.



by Chun Su-jin




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