By Park Si-soo
When it comes to sex, whether it refers to gender or sexual intercourse, Korea, built upon Confucianist ideals, has stayed very conservative.
But the strictness on sexual relations has become radically relaxed in recent years to the level that people believe women who keep their virginity until marriage are virtually "an endangered species."
Hostility against sexual minorities such as homosexuals and transsexuals, however, still remains robust, providing the grounds for many sexually straight people to see them as potential criminals, trouble makers or even transmitters of disease.
This invisible but obvious antagonism against sexual minorities here has served as an invincible hurdle to those trying to venture out of the closet. A couple of celebrities including male-turned-female singer Ha Ri-su, who made her debut in 2001, and Hong Seok-cheon, a male model and actor who came out as gay in 2002, have launched campaigns aimed at removing the negative images associated with those with a different sexual identity, but they have fallen short of getting rid of the deep-rooted sentiment.
Choi Han-bit, a 22-year-old male-turned-female fashion model, has recently added her energy to what critics call a "fruitless" campaign with the hope that her efforts will help advance the equal treatment of people regardless of their sexual identity.
Choi made her surprising debut as the first transsexual fashion model in July through a beauty pageant sponsored by SBS. Though she failed to advance to the finals, her passage in the preliminary stage was intriguing enough to draw huge public attention. Capitalizing on the popularity, she now features on a variety of TV shows as a guest, and hopes to become an actress.
She underwent a painful sex change operation in 2007 and was then recognized by a court as a woman. Choi also changed her name from Han-jin to Han-bit, which means a ray of sunshine in Korean and sounds more feminine. The former pretty boy now majors in Korean traditional dance at Korea National University of Arts in Seoul.
Critics may say she is still too young and not experienced enough to understand such heavy issues as the social barriers and discrimination against sexual minorities.
In fact, the baby-faced, plump-cheeked Choi was not different from other fledgling female adults of her age in regard to paying greater attention to good-looking men, brand-name goods, diet and weekend outing than other social issues.
But in a recent interview with The Korea Times at a coffee shop in southern Seoul, Choi said her life as a transsexual for the past two years is long enough to sense how the country remains unprepared for embracing people like her.
Asked the way to cope, she simply answered: Self-confidence.
"During this period, I have found many sexual minorities who distanced themselves from society to avoid public exposure," Choi said. "I would like to advise them that not to hide and come out. With a fear of public attention, it's all but impossible to change people's attitude toward us."
"I've come to have a female body through a painful surgical operation and been recognized as a women by a court. Instead of staying behind closed doors, I ventured out to expose myself and enjoy life as a woman," she said raising her tone of voice. "I have a fond memory of the past before the operation. But it is the thing of the past, not today. I am now truly a female as you can see," she said
The coffee shop where the interview was made, was quite crowded but she was never hesitant to state, "I am a transsexual."
She is the same as other contemporary women in her life goals, namely to have a successful career, get married and have children.
Despite her strong can-do spirit and risk-taking attitude, achieving the three goals may be difficult in reality.
The 180-cm-tall model has encountered invisible discriminations at her main workplace, the agency.
"I made my debut though an open contest. But discrimination against me, which I believe originates from my past, is still lingering," Choi said.
For instance, she was unable to participate in a preliminary session held ahead of a fashion show without clear reason.
"It was something predictable," she said with a bitter smile. "I don't expect all the people surrounding me to acknowledge me as a model in the near future. With all the energy I have, however, I will try to eventually make myself recognizable to people in this field, not as a transsexual model, but as super model Choi Han-bit."
She said she wants to get married around the age of 30 and will adopt one son and one daughter.
"I like a kind and broad-minded man. Unfortunately, I don't have a boyfriend. But I will get married with my Prince Charming in my late 20s or early 30s, during which a women's beauty reaches its climax," she said. "It's heart-wrenching that I cannot have biological children, but instead I will adopt."
She said she has been enjoying her heyday since the sex change operation.
"I have no specific reason for that feeling. Just living with the female body itself brought me the greatest feeling of euphoria," she said.
No state statistics on sexual minorities such as homosexuals and transsexuals exist. Choi Hyun-sook, a renowned pro-sexual minority activist, estimates the number at 20,000 nationwide. A 2007 report by Kim Seok-gwon, a urologist at Dong-A University, shows a demographic shift in the number of transsexuals.
According to Kim, a total of 240 people underwent sex change operations between 1989 and 2007 at his university hospital. One hundred and eighty males became females and 60 females became male.
"While those in their late 30s and 40s in the entertainment industry were major beneficiaries of the operation in the past, the age span has lowered in recent years to those in their late 20s and early 30s and those engaging in a variety of fields including doctors, students, businessmen and even educators have come under the knife," the urologist said.
The justice system is gradually becoming more transsexual-friendly.
In February, a provincial court convicted a man of raping a transsexual woman in the country's first ruling recognizing a legally male plaintiff as a rape victim. In 2006, the Supreme Court allowed a female-turned-male transsexual to change sex on the family registry, saying that gender should be decided not only by physical appearance but also the mentality and social attitude of the person.