In a first, transsexual runs for office in Ecuador

A 30-year-old rights activist is vying to become Ecuador's first transsexual lawmaker.

Diane Rodriguez is seeking to fill a vacant congressional seat as a candidate of the leftist Rupture 25 party in the South American country's February 17 presidential and parliamentary elections.

If she succeeds, the psychology student would become the first transsexual to hold public office in this socially conservative nation where 85 percent of the population identifies as Catholic.

"My focus will be on all minorities, vulnerable ethnic groups and feminist causes," Rodriguez told AFP, adding that she would also push for the legalization of same-sex marriage -- an issue President Rafael Correa and his main rival have spoken out against.

Rodriguez, whose former legal name was Luis Benedicto, says she has struggled for years due to her sexual orientation.

When she came out as a teenager to her parents, they kicked her out of the house, and for a brief time she survived as a prostitute before being allowed to return home.

"I wanted to develop my sexuality freely," she said, explaining her decision to secretly undergo hormone therapy.

As her appearance gradually became more feminine, Rodriguez said she faced discrimination in both her personal and professional lives.

After a legal battle, Rodriguez set a precedent when she finally obtained an ID card in 2009 that replaced her given male name -- but not her gender.

With the support of NGOs, Rodriguez launched a campaign that calls for individuals to be allowed to choose which gender they want to register as.

Rodriguez is not the first transsexual to seek a legislative seat in Latin America. In Chile, Valentina Verbal, who had a sex change operation four years ago, also is running for a seat in the parliament.