Colombia, the Surprising Global Leader in Transgender Rights

The South American country moves to allow transgender citizens to legally change their name and gender on government documents.
LGBT activists celebrate in Bogotá, Colombia's capital. (Photo: Eitan Abramovich/Getty Images)
Jun 10, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Daniela Franco covers social justice issues for TakePart. She studies journalism, sociology, and Latin American affairs at New York University, and has written for The New York Times Student Journalism Institute.

This week, Colombia moved to begin allowing its transgender citizens to legally change how their name and gender are registered on government identification cards—without having to endure intrusive physical and psychological examinations to prove their sex.

This puts Colombia at the forefront of an emerging global human rights issue: At least 19 European countries—including France, Belgium, and Italy—require transgender people to undergo genital removal surgery and sterilization before they can legally change their gender. Argentina, Spain, Uruguay, and Denmark have passed measures to allow transgender people to legally adjust government identification cards to reflect their gender identity without proof of surgery. In 2010, the U.S. State Department made it easier for transgender people to receive a passport reflecting their correct gender.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of accurate government identification cards: They’re critical to getting jobs, housing, and health care, opening bank accounts, and voting. It’s estimated that only 21 percent of transgender people in the U.S. have updated their government identification cards to reflect their accurate gender.

The development in Colombia is remarkable, especially considering the country is deeply Catholic and conservative. In recent years, however, the Catholic Church’s grip on Colombian political and cultural life has waned, and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people have become a more visible force in society. The development in Colombia reflects new attitudes toward LGBT people across Latin America: Argentina and Brazil, for example, have legalized same-sex marriage.

Supporters of Colombia’s new transgender rights policy hold up mock identification cards that read: “My name. My ID. My sex: I decide!” (Source: Twitter)

Colombia’s new policy makes it easier for transgender people to change their name on legal documents: They can just present a written request along with their name and national identity card number and copies of their national identity card and birth certificate. The process should be completed within five business days.

This is the latest progressive development for LGBT Colombians. The country has laws that protect LGBT people from discrimination in employment and extends common-law marriage benefits to same-sex couples. However, same-sex marriage is not legal. In a 2012 poll, 66 percent of Colombians surveyed said they oppose same-sex marriage and 28 percent said they support it. The country’s constitutional court is considering measures to approve same-sex marriages and adoptions.

Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, has publicly supported same-sex marriage. During an interview with the newspaper El Tiempo last year, Santos said: "Marriage between homosexuals is perfectly acceptable to me.... I am defending unions that exist between two people of the same sex with the rights and all of the privileges that this union should have.... For me, it is important that they have their rights." Santos is a member of the generally liberal Social Party of National Unity, which has also backed same-sex marriage. Last month, a top government minister insisted that Colombia would soon legalize same-sex marriages—despite polling that suggests deep public disapproval of such unions. “The government supports the fight for equality, and we will adopt measures providing equal marriage rights for all,” said the interior minister, Juan Fernando Cristo, according to Colombian news reports.

Despite Colombia’s progress on LGBT issues, many challenges remain. According to the U.S. Agency for International Development, Colombia reported the world’s highest rate of murders of transgender people between 2008 and 2013. Nearly 70 transgender people were murdered between 2004 and 2014 in Cali, a major city nearly 200 miles away from Bogotá, the capital, according to a United Nations human rights representative.

On Tuesday morning in Bogotá, 10 transgender people registered to have government documents accurately reflect their identity. Now Colombia, and the rest of the world, are one step closer to equality.