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Q&A: A New Law in Chile Recognizes Transgender People

People holding up a large replica of an identity card
Deputies celebrate at the congress in Valparaiso, Chile, on September 12, 2018. © Rodrigo Garrido/Reuters/Newscom

Chile’s congress passed a gender identity law recently that allows transgender people over 14 years of age to change their name and gender in official records. Max Anmeghichean, from the Open Society Foundations' Human Rights Initiative, speaks with Organizando Trans Diversidad’s Michel Riquelme about the law.

Why is this law important for the transgender community in Chile?

Imagine being a transgender person in Chile. The law did not used to be clear about your right to legally change your name and your gender marker (e.g. “F” or “M”). This led to a lot of abuse. Some transgender people who sought these changes were subjected to medical examinations and other humiliating and degrading tests, even though what they sought to do is exercise a fundamental human right. The law also addresses discrimination, providing important new protections. 

But the whole debate around the law was also useful in many ways, as it brought LGBTI advocates more into the public eye, educating the public about the discrimination that exists and the fixes we need to collectively undertake to ensure that all LGBTI people lead lives free from abuse and discrimination.

You have been working on this a long time. Tell us about some of the challenges you faced in winning support for this measure?

Work on this started six years ago and has continued through two different administrations: one on the left, and one on the right. There were three legislative elections in which we lost lawmakers who supported our initiative, and we had to gain support from new lawmakers who were joining the legislature for the first time. We believe the key was consistency. We never lost hope that the law would be passed, and we focused the majority of our organizational efforts and resources on it. We also focused on educating Chilean society on what it means to be a transgender person and on the existence of gender diversity beyond the binary we have always been taught. 

Was it very difficult to win support for a law that respects the rights of transgender people?

We spent a lot of time negotiating with people who had a lot of misconceptions about transgender people. And to be honest, we talked to a lot of people who may have come into these conversations thinking a lot of hateful and unfair things about transgender people. But along the way, you realize these prejudices can be overcome and you can make some allies who will help you when you need it. 

The presence of organized anti-rights groups was a challenge, as they focused on spreading disinformation on the content of the bill, inventing false language that the bill never included to stir up hate. For example, they invented the claim that the bill would force operations on children, a clear human rights violation that the bill would never include. 

Even though the law is a major step forward for transgender people in Chile, it’s not perfect. What would have liked to see included in the law that you did not?

The law does not recognize transgender people under the age of 14. This was a provision added by Chile’s right-wing government when they were in power. We had hoped that the change of government would give us a chance to address this harmful provision but the new government did not support a change. This is an open issue that we hope to return to—and we are concerned that the law, while terrific in many ways, will also become a template for other countries in the region. So this harmful omission may become a problem for advocates in other countries too.

What do you see as the next steps in the struggle for transgender rights in Chile?

Although passage of this law is a great step forward for Chile and for the region, making Chile one of seven South American countries to have a specific public policy recognizing gender identity, the law is not ideal. Rights continue to be violated. For example, people who are married are not adequately protected by the new law. If you are a transgender person who is married, the law calls on you to divorce before you will be allowed to change your sex and name legally. This is a painful and ridiculous thing to ask people who are in love to do. An obvious fix would be to adopt a marriage equality law. This is one of the great challenges the LGBTI community faces in Chile and throughout the region.

Organizando Trans Diversida is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

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