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Two years ago, Argentina became the first country in Latin America to support gay marriage. And a few months ago, it passed a law that recognizes the right of transgender citizens to change the name and sex on their ID cards and other documents with no medical or legal procedures. A few other countries like Australia have similar measures. But according to the UN, Argentina's law sets a new standard for making the process easy. Annie Murphy has that story from Buenos Aires.
ANNIE MURPHY, BYLINE: Mateo Solares is 25 years old, and he came here from Bolivia a few years ago. We're sitting in his bedroom. It's a desk, a twin bed covered by a thin blue blanket and a few suitcases. Mateo rummages around in his desk to show me his ID cards.
(SOUNDBITE OF CARDS SHUFFLING)
MURPHY: Growing up, his name was Moyra Veronica. Biologically, Mateo was a female. But he always felt like Mateo, like a guy. And the main reason he moved to Argentina is that it seemed like an easier place to transition into a life as a young man. He says having an ID card that reflects how he sees himself is huge.
MATEO SOLARES: (Through translator) Before, it felt terrible to see documents that didn't identify me as me. And those documents make you feel afraid. If I had to buy anything, I'd only do it if I could pay in cash because if I paid with a credit card, I'd have to show my ID. And the looks on people's faces, it was like I was lying, or they'd make fun of me. It was horrible.
MURPHY: In other countries, like Bolivia, changing your name and gender on ID cards often requires medical procedures or making a case before a judge, and it can take years. But here in Argentina, because of the new gender law, the change is simple and takes 15 days. And, under the law, if a person wants to have a medical procedure, like gender reassignment, health care will cover it. Psychologist Graciela Balestra works closely with the transgender community. She says it's an especially vulnerable population.
DR. GRACIELA BALESTRA: (Through translator) Transgender people have an average life expectancy of about 30 to 32 years. They don't live any longer. I think that statistic alone says so much.
MURPHY: Balestra says they're often kicked out of their homes as teenagers and don't complete school that some use risky homemade remedies to change their bodies when hormones and surgeries aren't available. And, according to a government study, over 95 percent of the transgender community turns to prostitution to support themselves. Balestra says the new ID cards help people access education and jobs.
Marcela Romero is the president of ATTA, an advocacy organization. During a meeting to plan this year's Pride parade, she smokes a cigarette out in the hallway. The windows are open, and a few blocks away sits the Plaza de Mayo, the site of protests during the 1970s dictatorship.
MARCELLA ROMERO: (Through translator) I was detained by the military dictatorship, but I've always dreamed of really experiencing democracy. None of the governments that followed the dictatorship ever included us in their agenda and the human rights debate. With the Kirchner government, we had our first meetings and our needs were heard.
MURPHY: Daniela Ruiz is also at the meeting. She used to work as a prostitute but now heads up a theater organization. She has on a green cardigan and looks like a pretty, middle-aged mom. She's applied for a new ID card and expects to get it back any day. And she's happy. But to her, it's the name that counts, that it says Daniela. As for gender, she feels fluid about it.
DANIELA RUIZ: (Foreign language spoken)
MURPHY: It's not so much about feeling like a woman, she says. What I feel like is a transgender person, and I feel great about being trans. Society has this thing about labeling people feminine or masculine. But what happens, she says, if I want to be feminine and masculine at the same time?
For NPR News, I'm Annie Murphy in Buenos Aires.