Bolivia’s transgender citizens celebrate new ID card law

Credit: Daniel Cima, Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos/Flickr)

Transgender Bolivians are celebrating a new national law that permits them to update their genders on state IDs.

Under the law, transgender citizens ages 18 and older can request to have their names, gender and photos changed on official documents to reflect their assumed gender. Around 1,500 people are expected to take advantage of the new law, according to LGBT groups.

When it was announced in May, Vice President Alvaro García Linera said the law would end the “social hypocrisy” in which many Bolivians refused to acknowledge the existence of the LGBT community.

“I wouldn’t let myself stop in my fight until I arrived at this moment, until the state recognized all transgender people in accordance with the identity that we have completely assumed,” said transgender activist Pamela Geraldine Valenzuela, who was the first Bolivian to register her new identification card last week.

Passage of the law means that Bolivia joins three other nations – Argentina, Colombia and Uruguay – in the fiercely conservative Latin American region in recognizing the needs of transsexual and transgender citizens in this way. Bolivia has seen impressive economic growth and social progress since President Evo Morales took office in 2006, and the new law has been widely accepted as a mark of progress for LGBT rights.

But the details behind the new law reveal how far the Andean nation still has to go before stamping out homophobia. Gay rights advocates point out that the law was seemingly pushed through congress to quell activist anger after a public remark made by Morales months ago. In remarks about about his health minister – a single woman, Ariana Camper – he said, “I don’t want to think she is a lesbian.”

It was not his first insensitive comment. Morales describes himself proudly as a “feminist but with machista jokes.” Morales made what was perhaps his most controversial statement in 2010, when he insisted that men who eat hormone-enriched chicken “experience deviances in being men.”

Unsurprisingly, Bolivia’s new ID law faced strong opposition from the Catholic and evangelical churches, which presented an appeal against it on the grounds that “it does not agree with the Constitution” and its definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

The church has also expressed concerns that the ID law could pave the way for a legal marriage between male and female homosexuals and transgender couples, although LGBT advocates consider the possibility to be remote.

Nationally, 49 percent of Bolivians say society should not accept homosexuality, compared to 43 percent who say it should, according to a Pew Research poll in 2013. Sexual minorities are prohibited from donating blood and are routinely discriminated against in education systems, hospitals, the police force and other institutions.

Although discrimination and violence against sexual minorities is common in societies across the continent, recent surveys indicate that attitudes in the Americas have changed faster in the past five years than in any other region in the world. In the past six years, same-sex marriage became legal in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Uruguay, as well as some states in Mexico.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com