[VIEWPOINT]A Supreme turning point in historyThere is a saying that the British Parliament can do anything except to turn a man into a woman. The Supreme Court of Korea last Thursday ruled that transgendered people would be allowed to apply to change their genders and their names; thus the Korean court achieved something even the British Parliament couldn’t.
The Supreme Court decision is monumentally significant in the history of our constitution and in the protection of human rights.
The Supreme Court was able to make such a significant decision because, basically, our society has become mature enough to acknowledge and accommodate diverse social phenomena and values. In this respect, the decision should not be seen as an exercise of power but as an execution of the court’s duty.
The Supreme Court has changed its fundamental pattern through the decision ― from a 20th century human rights paradigm to that of the 21st century.
Until now, the debate on human rights in our society was limited to freedom and rights from a political perspective. In this regard, Korea has a history of struggling for human rights that is internationally recognized.
Our society has achieved a high degree of democratization and human rights protection, comparable to those of advanced countries. However, the focus of human rights protection in the 21st century has changed, where respect for social minorities and the approval and co-existence of diversity is considered.
In this context, the Supreme Court decision has provided a historic turning point, comparable to the work of Copernicus.
There is a famous episode in Book 1, Part 1 ― King Hui of Lian of the work of Mencius: A long time ago, a king saw a man leading an ox crying sorrowfully as it was being taken to be sacrificed. The king told the man to let the ox go and sacrifice a sheep instead, because he couldn’t stand the ox crying so sadly. Mencius said the king did not tell the man to kill the sheep instead of the ox out of discrimination, but did so because he saw the ox, but not the sheep.
He continued to say that the king’s compassionate mind would gradually expand to things that he was not able to see, which ultimately would make the king the most benevolent leader in the world.
There is nothing harder for us ordinary people than to have true benevolence expand our sphere of interest from “things that are in front of us” to “things that cannot be seen.”
Although there are various minorities such as transgender, gay and interracial people in our society, their human rights are often ignored and they suffer from prejudice and contemptuous attitudes.
The recent Supreme Court ruling brings the problem of sexual minorities into the open, and asks the people of Korea to expand their compassion to areas that “are not being seen.”
The decision demonstrates a high standard of human rights awareness, by judging that allowing gender change through an active interpretation of the constitution is the best choice to relieve the pains of transgenders, instead of aimlessly waiting for legislators who have no plans to enact such a law.
In addition, it is time for the legislature to expand its range of awareness to the dark places of society that it cannot see.
And we urge it to press for the enactment of a law for transgenders, bearing in mind that the enactment of a law on gender rectification is not a possibility but a duty.
A special law for transgenders was once proposed at the National Assembly at the end of 2002, but it was discarded without proper deliberation.
There were many inadequate points of the special law when it was proposed.
The social awareness of transgenders has improved considerably. I expect that the law will become more complete and more humane through discussion among legislators.
Especially, it is essential that it include rules that private records of the person cannot be released, and it would be more effective to make detailed regulations on the effects of gender rectification, too.
It can be said that the Supreme Court’s decision has given our society a topic of conversation; we can ask what meaning the consideration and understanding of social minorities has in our society.
Now, escalating our society to a higher level is up to the Korean people.
* The writer is a lawyer. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Tae-hwa