updated 6/15/2007 4:42:55 PM ET 2007-06-15T20:42:55

Colombia is set to become the first Latin American country to give established gay couples full rights to health insurance, inheritance and social security under a bill passed by its Congress.

The plan approved Thursday is expected to take effect soon. It is backed by President Alvaro Uribe.

The measure would allow gay couples in long-term relationships to have the same health insurance and social security benefits as heterosexual couples. It also guarantees that assets accumulated during the relationship will be divided between the two, and in the case of death, inherited by the survivor.

Previously, possessions were passed on to blood relations.

Some states and cities in Latin America have passed similar laws, but no other country in the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic region has done so at a national level, said Marcela Sanchez, director of the gay rights group Colombia Diversa. She said as many as 300,000 gay couples in Colombia stand to benefit.

"I'm elated," said Catalina Gomez, an English teacher, who said she plans to use the new legal status to take out health insurance for her partner Monica, who works a self-employed designer and disc jockey. "It validates our union before the law so we no longer have to going around lying about our relationship."

Congress' lower house passed the bill 62-43 following a heated debate in which Alfredo Cuello Baute, the president of the chamber, accused gay lawmakers of a conflict of interest.

"I hope photos don't turn up showing some of our colleagues dressed as drag queens on Caracas Avenue," said Baute, referring to a nighttime cruising spot for transvestites and male prostitutes in Bogota.

Colombia's Senate passed a similar version in April. The two chambers must now agree on a unified text before sending it for Uribe's signature as early as next week.

"This is a victory that only a few months ago seemed unthinkable in this country," said pro-government Sen. Armando Benedetti, one of the bill's sponsors. "To my surprise, the Congress has shown itself to be a modern, responsible and liberal institution."

Colombia's Constitutional Court recognized similar rights to shared property and inheritance in a February ruling, but that decision did not deal with health insurance or social security.

While homosexuality is still taboo in much of Latin America, there has been increasing acceptance in many areas. Mexico City and the state of Coahuila recently joined the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires and the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul in legalizing same-sex civil unions.

Opponents of the measure and representatives of the Roman Catholic Church said they feared the Colombian law may open the way to gay marriage and gay adoption. But activists say their campaign is focused for now on obtaining practical benefits.

"Now people will have no choice but to accept we exist and have the same rights as straight couples," said Jose Luis Bautista, 36, who has been living with his partner Jaime for 15 years.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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