[FOUNTAIN]Gender and the courts

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[FOUNTAIN]Gender and the courts

Until early in this decade, Itaewon was a favorite destination for Japanese tourists in Seoul. Especially popular was a club where the voluptuous waitresses were transsexuals; under colorful lights and boisterous music, the waitresses stirred the curiosity of Japanese and Koreans alike.
At one time, a tour guide for Japanese groups described the club as “a sexual escape” where the so-called “third sex” offered a unique experience. The waitresses created an odd but compelling atmosphere for customers.
But when the waitresses had a drink or two, they started confiding their anguish to the customers. They generally had two big wishes. One was to save enough money to have a sex change operation. The other was to be able to change their gender on their family registry to female and enjoy a life as a woman. In Korea, some 4,000 to 10,000 people are estimated to have had a sex change operation. Combine those who are confused in their sexual identity, and the sexual minority might add up to several tens of thousands.
The medical world began to pay academic attention to transsexualism in the 1950s. George Jorgenson, then 26, who was suffering from a gender identity crisis, became one of the first people to have sex change surgery in 1952. A Roman emperor named Elagabalus was said to have had an operation to cut his genitalia and became a woman, but that cannot be confirmed. Starting at Johns Hopkins University after it set up a sexual disorder clinic, sex change operations were being performed around the world by the 1960s. In 1994, the World Health Organization defined transsexuals as “those who have a desire to live and be accepted as a member of the opposite sex, usually accompanied by a sense of discomfort with, or inappropriateness of, one’s anatomical sex, and a wish to have surgery and hormonal treatment to make one’s body as congruent as possible with one’s preferred sex.”
Due to their deep-rooted Confucian tradition, Koreans used to look at transsexuals with reproachful eyes. Depending on the tendency of a court, suits pursued by transsexuals to change their genders were treated differently. A transsexual in her 50s who finally went through a sex change operation was told by a court that she deserved to live a decent life as a human being and was allowed to change her gender on the census registry. But some religious and legal groups criticized the court for playing God by determining the gender of human beings.
Maybe in the future, we might need a profession that judges the gender of individual humans.


by Park Jai-hyun

The writer is a deputy city news editor at the JoongAng Ilbo.
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