Days before Costa Rica celebrated the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia on May 17, Vice President Ana Helena Chacón announced an executive order that would punish public workers for discriminating against people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Besides possible disciplinary action, the vice president said that government institutions must recognize same-sex couples in their definition of family members when requesting time off work if their same-sex partner is seriously ill or dying.
Costa Rica does not recognize gay marriage or civil unions for same-sex couples.
“There is an enormous gap in the legislation that is holding back equality. We, as the executive branch, need to find ways to build a more just society in the institutions that we manage,” Chacón told The Tico Times.
Chacón, who is a longtime supporter of LGBT rights in Costa Rica, made the announcement before an enthusiastic crowd waving rainbow flags at Casa Presidencial Friday afternoon.
The executive order does not specify how institutions should sanction public workers who discriminate. Chacón said that those details would be left to individual institutions to determine. The order only affects institutions under the executive branch and is not a law in Costa Rica.
“Many institutions already have their [own anti-discrimination] policies and now Casa Presidencial has decreed it for all those who don’t,” said Francisco Madrigal, chief political officer for the Center for Research and Promotion of Human Rights in Central America, a group that researches and advocates for LGBT issues in the region.
“This decree puts the cherry on the cake,” he said.
Besides punishments, the decree also orders public institutions to provide training for their employees and other reforms to guarantee equal access to public services for Costa Rica’s LGBT population.
Decree 38999 also requires every institution under the power of the executive branch to redefine the terms “couple” or “partner” within the next five months.
Casa Presidencial ordered that the definition of a significant other must include “someone who is in a voluntary relationship and cohabitates with another person of the same sex for at least one year.”
Gay and lesbian couples gained hospital visitation rights in 2014 but government institutions would not necessarily grant an employee time off work to care for or visit their same-sex partner.
Recognition of same-sex couples as family members for hospital visits has been a constant struggle for gay and lesbian couples in Costa Rica, said Marco Castillo, president of the LGBT advocacy group Diversity Movement.
“In the past, hospitals would only allow family members to visit a patient. They wouldn’t consider his [gay] partner family,” Castillo said.
Chacón said that the one-man-one-woman definition of family did not reflect the reality that many LGBT couples live in Costa Rica, and that hospital visit rights was one step to change that.
“No one deserves to die alone,” said Chacón in her remarks.
Castillo said Friday’s decree was an important step forward for LGBT rights in Costa Rica but that his organization would be vigilant to make sure the government keeps its word.
As many LGBT leaders celebrated the decree, they pointed out that there was much more to be done to shore up LGBT rights in the legislative assembly, including a long delayed gay civil union bill and legal right for transgender people to change their gender on their national identification cards.