Facebook profile pictures were daubed with rainbow colors in global support on June 26th when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same sex marriage was legal in all states. This was a giant leap forward for gay rights activists and a big win after a long fight.

Meanwhile in Colombia, a few weeks before the Supreme Court’s ruling, the LGBT community gained another important win, but it got little coverage in the national media and international coverage was even more sparse.

On June 4th, Colombia marked its own moment in history for the rights of transgender people. A decree was passed for transgender men and women to legally change their sex on the national identification card – cédula – with a visit to the notary public without having to perform the inhumane tests and requirements that were previously in place.

In the past, transgender men and women were subjected to humiliating genital inspections in front of officials of the Medicina Legal to prove they had undergone full gender reassignment surgery and put through psychiatric tests to prove they “suffered” from gender dysphoria defined as a mental illness.

In the past, transgender men and women were subjected to humiliating genital inspections

Now, no notary in the country can deny a person’s right to change their sex and demand medical or psychiatric examinations or extra documents other than stated in the decree. It’s a giant leap towards the ethical treatment of transgender men and women, and the change has a huge impact on a number of other issues as well.

The “T” in LGBT stands for transgender/transsexual. With gender-transitioning celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner and American reality show trans teen Jazz Jennings getting increased media coverage, the subject of gender change is becoming more visible. Brigitte Baptiste, the 51 year-old director of the Humboldt Institute is leading the way for the transgender community in Colombia.

There is still some confusion about the transgender community, and increased visibility has been important to raise the awareness of their role in our communities. Deciding to change sex from female to male or vice versa is not a simple choice and has nothing to do with sexual preference.

Gender identity and who you chose as a sexual partner are worlds apart. Many transgender people feel they know from childhood that something is wrong with their bodies, that they are trapped in the wrong sex.

It can cause severe mental trauma and confusion for children as they grow up and start to develop, and parents despair trying to understand why their child wants to mutilate themselves or in some cases end their life. The suicide rate in transgender youth is staggeringly high with more than 50% having had at least one suicide attempt by their 20th birthday.

Statistics in Latin America are also shocking. Between 44-70% of identified transgender teens are thrown out of their home or abandoned. This makes the likelihood of trans women working in prostitution and the sex industry much higher.

In Chile 95% of transgender women make a living on the streets. There isn’t sufficient data to talk specifically about Colombia, but a recent study by Bogotá’s Mayoralty discovered that 92.44% of transgender people faced discrimination at work and have been victims of severe verbal and physical abuse.

This decree will hopefully work towards lessening discrimination and improving tolerance in Colombian society. Tomás Otálora, a rare transitioning female to male, who recently was featured in a documentary “Buscando a Tomás” spoke about what this new decree really signifies for the future of the trans community.

As we sit in the living room of an apartment he shares with his girlfriend Laura, his face lights up as he tells me about how he is changing because of the daily testosterone injections, like he’s experiencing puberty all over again but this time as a man.

Still image of Tomás Otalora.
Tomás Otalora campaigned to have his identity card changed.

He tells me how he first changed his name before the decree was passed and was given an ID card with the new name and photo. But still his gender was registered as female.

It caused problems when he applied for jobs, experiencing discrimination because he was in the middle of his transition.When the decree became official, Tomás was the first person in his local notary to change his gender to match his new name. Even though every notary across the country had been informed about the decree, not all were prepared to deal with the change.

Tomás was first denied by the notary he went to and had to push for the change to happen. It took several weeks to get the ball rolling, and now he’s only waiting for his new cédula.

He explained to me why this news signifies a victory for transgender people and isn’t only about being recognized as the gender you truly are. Being legally accepted as a man, Tomás can now marry his girlfriend Laura. The new decree accepts transgender men and women to marry when they are in straight relationships.

If two trans men or women want to marry, the same-sex marriage law still applies in Colombia.

Tomás further went on to say that a trans person will now be treated under the same laws and rights as the gender they have changed to. For example: he now needs to have a military card and can only receive his pension now at the age of 65 like any other male. If charged by the law, he would have to go to a male prison.

He explained that this has been a huge problem for trans women who work in prostitution. When they get in trouble with the law they are sent to a male prison and often suffer abuse at the hands of other inmates and guards for being transgender.

This decree can help prevent that from happening as long as they have the new gender on the cédula. Although this change is an incredible step towards fair treatment of the transgender community in Colombia, it still remains a privilege for those who can afford it.

The process can be costly, according to Tomás and for some low-income or homeless members of the trans community it is still out of reach. Organizations who have pushed for this decree are looking into making this option free-of-charge for those who don’t have the means to do it, including trans women currently serving time in male prisons who can’t get access to a notary to complete the change so they can transfer to a female prison.

Besides the obstacles that have to be overcome, the cédula identity issue has been welcomed as an achievement for gender equality in the country. No doubt, the future may see more changes for the LGBT community in Colombia and of course, the rest of the world.