Sam Porto, 25, a transgender model from Brasilia. Photo for the Washington Post by P鴡la Lopes

Sao Paulo - Sam Porto and his mirror have never gotten along. When the transgender man was growing up in Brazil, the sight of his developing breasts disgusted him.

But in a crowded makeup room backstage at Sao Paulo Fashion Week, the reflection staring back at him finally fit in. Male models with painted lips and nails strutted alongside women in boxy, loose clothing. Gender was out; fluidity was in.

"I came here to break barriers," said Porto, a 25-year-old from Brasilia, one of a dozen transgender models who made their debuts this month at Sao Paulo Fashion Week. The pink scars from his breast removal surgery crossed his chest like war paint. "We exist. There are others like me and we are searching for a path in fashion."

Sam Porto, 25, a transgender model from Brasilia. Photo for the Washington Post by P鴡la Lopes

More transgender people are killed in Brazil than anywhere else in the world, and discrimination is rampant. Last year the country elected a socially conservative president partial to antigay rhetoric. Now the fashion community is emerging as a centre of the LGBT resistance.

In 2016, Brazil launched the world's most famous transgender model, Valentina Sampaio. She became the first transgender model hired by Victoria's Secret, and the first featured on a cover of Vogue.

Brazilian transgender model Valentina Sampaio. (AP Photo/Andre Penner, File)

Sampaio followed the path blazed by Leandra Medeiros Cerezo, known as Lea T, the Brazilian transgender model who was the face of French luxury fashion brand Givenchy in the early 2010s. 

But as Brazil's transgender models have attained success abroad, life for the trans community back home has grown worse.

An astounding 41% of documented killings of transgender people worldwide take place in Brazil, according to the country's National Association of Transvestites and Transsexuals. At least 163 trans people were killed last year. Life expectancy for transgender people here is 35, half the national average.

Violence against the LGBT community rose last year as fringe politician Jair Bolsonaro campaigned for president. The father of five said he would rather a son die in an accident than be gay. It did not stop Brazilians from electing him.

During Bolsonaro's first week in office, his minister of women, family and human rights said that from now on "boys will wear blue and girls will wear pink."

The pronouncement drew outcry and ridicule, but the fashion community saw it as a challenge. At Rock Management, a modeling agency in Sao Paulo, the election sparked an all-hands meeting. 

"We said, either we accept this political situation and show only white men," said 25-year-old Clara Vieira, a booking agent at Rock. "Or we say, 'No, honey, we are going to show trans, blacks, plus-size models.'

"Keeping our head down was not an option." 

The agency tried to expand its "freestyle" department, focused on alternative looks: Models with tattoos, dyed hair and curvy bodies. But founder Clovis Pessoa, 46, quickly saw there were limits to what the fashion world would accept. 

"You still need to have a perfect body, long legs and a short torso," he said. "There is a standard shape that fashion requires."

Porto, at 6 feet tall with an angular jaw and narrow frame, fit the bill. One year past his gender transformation surgery, he was eager to break into fashion - and not as a man, but as a transgender model. In his portfolio, he included a photo of himself topless to show his scars.

Pessoa took Porto in. The two would pace the agency's small office for hours as Pessoa offered guidance: Keep your head up and your chin back. Porto sometimes hunched as he walked, Pessoa said, as if he still had to carry breasts in front of him. 

"Imagine you are a puppet and there is a line pulling you up," he advised. "I want you to gain height and presence."

After a month of catwalk practice, Porto was ready for casting. In a whitewashed room thick with cologne and anxiety, six male models sat on a leather couch, looking nearly identical in tight pants, gold rings and piercings, waiting to be seen. 

Sam Porto rehearses for the catwalk. Photo for The Washington Post by P鴡la Lopes

Alexandre Queiroz is casting director of the Brazilian fashion label Ellus. When he saw Porto, he was sold. 

"He is beautiful," Queiroz said. But it was more than his looks. Gone were the days, Queiroz said, when consumers demanded perfection. The modern audience wanted a model with personality - someone who was fighting for something.

"There was a time when brands were scared that the final consumer wouldn't understand," he said. "But we live in a country where homophobia kills. We can't be scared. Back in the day, it could have bothered me. But now it is a fight."

Porto got that gig, and eight others - the most shows for any model this season. Brands wanted him because he was trans, not despite it. He was rarely the only trans model in a show.

At the end of one appearance, Sao Paulo Fashion Week founder Paulo Borges pulled him aside. "My god, you're gorgeous," Borges told him. "I want to see more of you."

For some - particularly black or androgynous trans models - the climb has been more difficult. 

Kiara Felippe, 24, a transgender model from Sao Paulo. Photo for The Washington Post by P鴡la Lopes

Maria Clara de Melo, 24, a transgender model from southern Brazil, said she decided to sit out Sao Paulo Fashion Week this year because the discrimination she has suffered in previous seasons left her depressed and exhausted. Makeup artists routinely referred to her as "him." As she was undergoing her transition, she struggled to get gigs.

Maria Clara de Melo, 24, a transgender model from Santa Catarina. Photo for The Washington Post by P鴡la Lopes

"People say that the fashion industry is so accepting, but it isn't quite like that," de Melo said. She decided to try her luck abroad in Paris or Milan. "To be a successful Brazilian trans model, you have to have a career outside the country first. Then people here will value you."

Whatever strides the fashion industry has made toward embracing transgender people, some say it took too long. Neon Cunha is a transgender producer for designer Isaac Silva. The brand included three black transgender models in its debut show this year.

"I see there is a concern this season about bringing in new faces, new voices, to make fashion that has a sociopolitical thought process," Cunha said. "But nobody asks, where has this vacuum been for 21 years? How long does it take to have a designer like Isaac?"

This year, inclusivity was the explicit theme of several shows. Cavalera, a Brazilian brand known for its urban street style, chose Porto to close the runway.

Other male models wore colorful eyeliner and lipstick, but Porto's face was blank, save for three black tears under one eye - symbolic of the country's trans murder rate.

As he reached the end of the runway, he slowly unzipped his vest and knelt before the flashing cameras. Under his scars, a clear message was scrawled in black across his abdomen: "Trans respect." 

The Washington Post