When a person is born with a male body but a female psyche, is his body a divine gift to be respected? Or is her body a birth defect, an error by her creator? Does sex reassignment surgery overturn God’s will?
Kim Seok-Kwun, a doctor who pioneered gender surgery in South Korea, struggles with these questions in an interview with the Associated Press. The reporter, Hyung-Jin Kim, explains the cultural context: “A strong bias against sexual minorities persists in South Korea, the result of lingering Confucian beliefs that children should never damage the bodies they received from their parents.” Meanwhile, “In 2012, vehement protests by conservative activists and Christian groups forced a TV channel to scrap a talk show program featuring transgender people.”
The religious resistance has put enormous pressure on Dr. Kim. When he began doing these operations three decades ago, “Sometimes parents showed up just before surgeries, furious and threatening to disown their children.” Kim’s pastor objected to his work, and “friends and fellow doctors joked that he was going to hell if he didn’t stop.”
According to the story, Kim remains a devout Protestant. But his reflections on his work and what it signifies about creation are startling:
I’ve decided to defy God’s will. At first, I agonized over whether I should do these operations because I wondered if I was defying God. I was overcome with a sense of shame. But my patients desperately wanted these surgeries. Without them, they’d kill themselves.
Some people are born without genitals or with cleft lips or with no ears or with their fingers stuck together. Why does God create people like this? Aren’t these God’s mistakes? And isn’t a mismatched sexual identity a mistake, too?
In the article, the Rev. Hong Jae Chul, president of the Christian Council of Korea, condemns Kim’s remarks. He calls Kim’s work “a blasphemy against God.”
I doubt there’s any love lost between the doctor and the minister. But their disagreement is less jarring than what they agree on. Both of them seem to think that a mismatch between body and sexual identity is God’s doing, and that any attempt to alter that body is a rejection of God’s will.
Their quarrel reminds me of an old joke, which I found reprinted in The Epistle, a website for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Christians. A man engulfed by a storm refuses help from neighbors and rescue workers who offer to evacuate him by car, canoe, motorboat, and then helicopter. Each time, he insists, “God will save me.” Eventually, the man drowns in the flood. When he rebukes God for failing to help him, God points out, “I sent you a car. I sent you a canoe. I sent you a motorboat. I sent you a helicopter.”
Maybe that’s a better way to understand Dr. Kim’s work. He’s not defying God’s will. He’s the help God sent.