By Alexandra Ulmer and Yury Garcia
QUITO/GUAYAQUIL (Reuters) - Ecuadorean transgender people on Sunday voted for the first time according to their chosen gender, in what activists say are signs of progress in the socially conservative and Catholic Andean nation.
In Ecuador, men and women wait in separate lines to cast their ballots, which for years created uncomfortable moments for transgender voters who had to queue up according to their biological sex.
"The rumors would start, and the looks," said LGBT activist Mariasol Mite, 32, who changed her ID description from "sex: male" to "gender: female" last year.
Fears of harassment were such that voters would sometimes send their brothers or husbands to wait in line until they got close to the booth, according to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists.
"This year, everything was different," said Mite, adding that public officials and fellow voters were much more aware of the issue.
After years of lobbying by the LGBT community and despite opposition by Catholic and increasingly powerful evangelical groups, Ecuador passed a law last year allowing people to choose a gender on their identity card.
"This is very important because our rights are being recognized. It hasn't been easy," said activist and National Assembly candidate Diane Rodriguez, after voting in the city of Guayaquil close to the Pacific coast.
An estimated 200 people in the country of 16 million have changed their gender on their ID card since the law changed last year, she added.
ECUADOR'S FIRST TRANSGENDER LAWMAKER?
Rodriguez, a 34-year-old psychologist who was born biologically male, is vying to become Ecuador's first transgender lawmaker as the country renews its Congress as well as chooses a president for a four-year term.
If elected, the leftist ruling party candidate would push for legislation to counter bullying against transgender students, combat discrimination in the workplace, and eventually work towards legalizing gay marriage and adoption.
Rodriguez' potential election in Ecuador would come on the heels of Venezuela electing its first transgender lawmaker, lawyer and activist Tamara Adrian, in 2015.
Adrian is staunchly opposed to Venezuela's Socialist government, which is an ally of Ecuador's own leftist government, but Rodriguez says the two are close despite being politically opposed.
"She's a partner in this fight," said Rodriguez. "Beyond the fact that she's in a right-wing movement... we're united by the progress of rights."
(Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Nick Zieminski)