BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Activists say Argentina now leads the world in transgender rights after giving people the freedom to change their legal and physical gender identity simply because they want to, without having to undergo judicial, psychiatric and medical procedures beforehand.
The gender identity law that won congressional approval with a 55-0 Senate vote Wednesday night is the latest in a growing list of bold moves on social issues by the Argentine government, which also legalized gay marriage two years ago. These changes primarily affect minority groups, but they are fundamental, President Cristina Fernandez has said, for a democratic society still shaking off the human rights violations of the 1976-1983 dictatorship and the paternalism of the Roman Catholic Church.
Activists and academics who have tracked gender identity laws and customs worldwide said Thursday that no other country has gone so far to embrace gender self-determination. In the United States and Europe, transgender people must submit to physical and mental health exams and get past a series of other hurdles before getting sex-change treatments.
Argentina's law also is the first to give citizens the right to change their legal gender without first changing their bodies, said Justus Eisfeld, co-director of Global Action for Trans Equality in New York.
"The fact that there are no medical requirements at all — no surgery, no hormone treatment and no diagnosis — is a real game changer and completely unique in the world. It is light years ahead of the vast majority of countries, including the U.S., and significantly ahead of even the most advanced countries," said Eisfeld, who researched the laws of the 47 countries for the Council of Europe's human rights commission.
Marcela Romero, who was born a man but got a sex-change operation 25 years ago, spent 10 years arguing in Argentina's courts before a judge ordered the civil registry to give her a new identity card listing her gender as female.
"It's something humiliating ... many of us have had to endure psychiatric and physical tests," she told The Associated Press on Thursday. "With this law we'll no longer have to go through this."
Romero, 48, said she personally knows 40 people who had to get judicial approval for sex-change operations, and are still on waiting lists. The law should help them get the treatment they need, she said.
Romero leads the Argentine Transvestite, Transsexual and Transgender Association, whose legal team helped draft the law with help from an international coalition of activist groups pushing for governments to drop barriers to people determining their own gender identity. None of those groups have managed to find politicians willing to go as far as Argentina's, however.
"This law is saying that we're not going to require you to live as a man or a woman, or to change your anatomy in some way. They're saying that what you say you are is what you are. And that's extraordinary," said Katrina Karkazis, a Stanford University bioethicist who wrote "Fixing Sex," a study of the legal and medical boundaries around gender identity issues in the United States.
"Rather than our more sedimented ideas about what it is to be male or female, this sort of throws all of that up in the air in a really exciting way," she said.
Next up for Argentina's government is an overhaul of the country's civil and penal codes, an often-contradictory conglomeration of laws dating back nearly two centuries that cover all aspects of society. Encouraged by the president, congressional commissions representing all leading parties and the Supreme Court are drafting wide-ranging legislation to modernize how the country deals with abortion, adoption, artificial insemination, divorce and many other difficult issues.
The Catholic Church, which had an outsized role in forming these codes over the country's 200-year history, has opposed many social reforms, and not just those affecting gay, lesbian and transgender people.
"The Argentine lawmakers are introducing profound changes in society that don't respond to any social demand and without taking into account the real consequences," Nicolas Lafferriere, who directs the church-sponsored Center for Bioethics, Personhood and Family, complained Thursday in "Religious Values," an online publication sponsored by the archbishop of Buenos Aires.
"We have found ourselves faced with the most permissive law in the world in this area. Now, to change all the civil registries you don't need any more justification than a personal desire, based on someone's self-perception. It won't be easy to predict the consequences." Lafferriere warned.
Most Argentines still identify themselves as Catholic, and Catholicism remains the nation's official religion.
But fewer and fewer Argentines regularly attend Mass, and priests and bishops don't have the same power of the pulpit anymore. The church has become so weakened politically that the government has treated it more like a useful enemy than a force capable of influencing vast numbers of voters.
The Catholic hierarchy also has been inexorably linked with the military junta that killed as many as 30,000 people during the dictatorship. Both enforced conservative social values at the time.
Karla Oser, 38, underwent hormone therapy before surgeons transformed her male organ into a vagina in 2006, becoming one of only 40 people to have sex-reassignment surgery at a public hospital in the provincial capital of La Plata over the years. But first, she said, she had to present a judge with testimony from two psychologists, a psychiatrist, an ear-nose-and-throat specialist, a gynecologist and a urologist.
Even after her sex-reassignment surgery, she has failed to get judicial permission to update her national identity card to reflect her new gender, according to a public health ministry announcement.
The new law gives her hope, she said: "The operation changed my life and today I'm celebrating that everyone who faces a situation similar to mine can get their surgery without having to make it through the judicial labyrinth I went through."
The ministry quoted Oser as part of an announcement saying government surgeons are now open for business, ready to provide similar treatment for anyone who decides they want it — no more questions asked.
Anita Snow in Mexico City and Almudena Calatrava in Buenos Aires contributed to this report.