The online spat in South Korea began when transgender former pop princess Harisu confronted K-pop trainee Han Seo-hee over comments the latter had made; namely, that transgender women were not ‘real women.’
She took issue with various transgender women, who apparently asked if she could publicly talk about their rights too. Han wrote, “I do not think transgender people are women, nor do I think they are biologically female. How can they be women when they have willies?”
Han quoted feminist Elizabeth Grosz, who said transgender people can look female, but can never be a woman.
Harisu, a transgender model-turned-singer, hit back at Han on her own Instagram account (post now deleted). She said, “There are women who have their uteri removed due to illness or cancer. According to your logic, they are not women either.” She subsequently apologized for her comment.
Later in the day, Han Seo-hee Instagrammed again, “I’m not queerphobic.” To her understanding of what a woman is, she “cannot include transgender people…. Just because I do not embrace them, does it mean I hate all sexual minorities?”
According to Han Seo-hee’s experiences with transgender women, they hijack the definition of womanhood and make it a point to blindly adhere to the conventions of femininity, such as putting on makeup and wearing high heels. She questioned whether her doing the opposite of such ‘feminine’ pursuits — disliking heels, makeup or princess cartoons — would then make her a man.
South Korean media were quick to focus on the Instagram feud as celebrity gossip; while some did touch on whether Han was a true feminist, many reports forewent further commentary.
While Han did have her reasons to question the role of transgender women in context of South Korea’s ongoing discourse on womanhood, she and the media failed to touch on the bigger issue: trans-exclusionary radical feminism (TERF).
Han’s adherence to the TERF school of thought, characterized by the exclusion of transgender women from the definition of women, also appears in some strands of South Korean feminism: most notably in Womad, which is often criticized for a radically exclusive feminism. Womad originated from the well-known Megalia community, splintering from the latter in 2016 when Megalia banned explicit slurs against gay men.
Kim Ji-hak, who heads Diversity Korea, an organization dedicated to the research, education and campaigns on human rights and diversity, told Korea Exposé, “This isn’t a one-off incident, but an aspect of Korean society…. A person’s gender identity cannot be interpreted solely by the shape of their genitals.”
While not necessarily an A-list celebrity, Han Seo-hee’s public remarks against transgender women comes against the backdrop of widespread discrimination against sexual minorities, in a country already known for its lack of LGBT rights.
“There has been enormous interest in women’s human rights since the murder of a woman in Seoul’s Gangnam district,” said Kim. “But sexual minorities’ human rights do not receive the same level of interest because many Koreans do not recognize that the mechanisms that discriminate and oppress women and sexual minorities are part of the same social structure.”
Cover image: What is “woman”? (Source: Alexas_Fotos via Pixabay, CC0 Creative Commons)