Colombia’s conservative President Alvaro Uribe has given his backing to the country becoming the first in Latin America to nationally give gay couples full rights to health insurance, inheritance and benefits. The plan was passed by Congress this week.

The proposed changes that are opposed by the Catholic Church will give gay couples many of the same rights as heterosexual couples.

“This makes Colombia a more democratic, more open place,” said Colombia Diversa activist, Virgilio Barco, son of former Liberal President, Virgilio Barco Vargas. “It marks the first time that legislation like this has passed at a national level in Latin America.

While some states, regions and cities in Latin America have passed similar laws, they have never been proposed on a national level. 300,000 gay couples in Colombia are set to benefit.

The lower house of Colombia’s Congress passed the bill 62-43. Alfredo Cuello Baute, the president of the lower chamber said: “I hope photos don’t turn up showing some of our colleagues dressed as drag queens on Caracas Avenue.”

The change in attitudes over sexuality marks a change for the country long marred by Guerilla conflict. Elizabeth Castillo, a gay rights lawyer said: “This argument was never based on moral or religious grounds, even though the detractors always went to the religious and moral arguments.”

In February 7, 2007, the Colombian Constitutional Court awarded common-law marriage inheritance rights to same-sex couples. The country did not ever legally ban gay sex.

However, there remain risks for gay men in particular in Colombia with frequent attacks.