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Relative newcomers like Ms. Paixão, Camila Ribeiro and Felipa Tavares have gotten runway and catalog work in the national fashion market. Ms. Ribeiro walked in the Fashion Business show in Rio for Santa Ephigênia, a classy women’s wear brand. And Ms. Paixão will be in the coming catalog of Walério Araújo, a Brazilian designer who is known for flamboyant styles and has dressed Brazilian celebrities including singers like Preta Gil and Maria Rita.
The transgender models say that their experiences bear out the idea that progress in gaining social acceptance has been uneven despite the anything-goes image the nation projects. The country’s gay and transgender movements were stunted during the military dictatorship that steered the country from 1964 to 1985, years when similar movements were taking root in other countries, scholars of gay rights here say.
Gender-bending has a long history in Brazil; public cross-dressing peaks each year with the pre-Lenten Carnival celebrations. The participation of boisterous men in women’s clothing and crude makeup is as much a tradition as samba competitions.
Drag shows by transgender and gay performers became a fad in Rio nightclubs in the 1950s and ’60s, and in subsequent decades some transgender women began using hormonal treatments and silicone to feminize their bodies, according to James N. Green, a historian and the author of “Beyond Carnival: Male Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century Brazil.”
Brazil has also increasingly become supportive of gay rights. São Paulo hosts one of the world’s largest gay pride parades, and since 2010, the Brazilian judiciary has upheld gay couples’ rights to civil unions, adoption and marriage. But a proposal to distribute antidiscrimination kits in public schools was defeated by the government after evangelical members of Congress complained of its sexual content.
And violence and prejudice against the gay and transgender populations remain high. Grupo Gay da Bahia, a prominent gay rights group, reported 338 killings nationwide of gay, lesbian and transgender people in 2012. It is not possible to verify the motives for every crime, but many victims show marks of torture and multiple wounds, leading the group to believe such killings are often hate crimes, Luiz Mott, the anthropologist and historian who founded the group, said.
Even as transgender models gain prominence, Mr. Green, the historian, argues that their success — while it is positive for those individuals — has little political value.
“I think it means that men who look like women, as long as they are submissive to men and focus on beauty and clothes, don’t threaten anything,” he said. “It fits into men’s fantasies.”
Some models see themselves as highly political while others say they are eager to be accepted as a woman like any other.
Roberta Close, who posed for Playboy in 1984, is considered Brazil’s first transgender model and cultivated a devoted male following with her girlish aesthetic. The actress Rogéria, born Astolfo Barroso Pinto, is a household name in Brazil after years of appearing on Globo TV.
Still, the proportion of transgender models is tiny considering the vast fashion industry here.
Brazil’s most internationally recognized transgender model — Lea T, born Leandro Cerezo and the son of a former soccer star, Toninho Cerezo — posed for a 2010 international Givenchy campaign. She also walked São Paulo Fashion Week with supermodels like Gisele Bündchen and Alessandra Ambrosio, who are known for their work for Victoria’s Secret.
Débora Souza, a modeling agent who represents Ms. Marra, said, “A trans model is interesting because she can get two crowds: both the feminine crowd and the gay crowd, which is the main group of the fashion world.”
But once they venture beyond the confines of fashion, the models have enjoyed less success. Ms. Ribeiro, 24, who comes from the Amazonian industrial city of Manaus, has posed for Candy, which calls itself the “first transversal style magazine.” But she said that despite being welcomed by fashion and artistic, experimental or avant-garde publications, transgender models had found it difficult to branch out into mainstream consumer magazines, catalogs, trade shows and ads for products with broad appeal. Ms. Marra also said her own renown in the fashion world has not carried over to other realms. She said she has been inundated with vulgar messages from men on her Facebook page, often asking her how much she costs for a night.
“I never wanted to be an activist of the cause,” Ms. Marra said. “I thought I was a woman like any other.”
But she became more outspoken after receiving messages from transgender individuals in more remote corners of the country, like a prostitute in Manaus who saw her on TV and asked for guidance.
Ms. Marra also complained that she did not receive fair treatment in casting, saying that she was assigned only to roles of transgender women.
“The majority of actors are gay and they can play a heartthrob,” Ms. Marra told her director at her mini-series shoot. “Why can’t I play a maid, a secretary, a tree?”Continue reading the main story