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Transgender dancer Kamilla Carvalho performs during the rehearsal of Salgueiro samba school prior the carnival parade in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil January 11, 2018. Picture taken January 11, 2018. REUTERS/Pilar Olivares

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By Maria Clara C Pestre

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - When he paraded during Carnival at age 14 for the first time with a Rio de Janeiro samba group, Wagner Carvalho did not recognise himself in the mirror.

Today, after 16 years, four plastic surgeries and a long process of self-discovery, Wagner, who now goes by the name of Kamilla, will become the first transgender woman to be one of the star dancers leading the top-tier Acadêmicos do Salgueiro samba group during Rio's glittering Carnival parades that begin this Sunday.

While Brazil has a reputation as a free-for-all and tolerant nation, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community faces significant hate crime and murders.

In 2017, over 170 transgender people were murdered in Brazil, compared to 56 in Mexico and 25 in the United States, according to Transgender Europe, an advocacy group.

"Adversity for trans people is everywhere," Carvalho said. "If you go into a bakery with me, people are going to look. If I go to a night club that is not used to people like me, everything that is different is going to generate resistance."

Born in the Rio favela of Providencia, Carvalho always loved Carnival: after debuting with a small neighbourhood group at age 14, she began parading on floats with the Salgueiro samba group in 2008.

Her big break came last year, when she met the head of Salgueiro, Regina Celi, who invited her to parade in a prominent position.

Ten years after dancing with Salgueiro for the first time, Carvalho will play a queen as part of this year's "Women of the World's Womb" theme, which celebrates the strength of black women.

"The story is about ... women warriors ... those who made it possible for women to be empowered today. I think the story is perfect for me," Carvalho said.

Celi said Carvalho's prominent role this year was good for Salgueiro, which will compete against 12 other groups for the coveted title of Rio's Carnival champions, a hotly contested event that tens of millions of Brazilians watch live on TV.

"It is only natural for us to have this beautiful transgender woman representing us," Celi said.

Despite the danger transgender people face in Brazil, Kamilla sees Carnival as an opportunity to promote tolerance.

"People should use the street carnival to enjoy themselves peacefully ... without segregating any kind of person, any race, to embrace people," she said.

(Reporting by Maria Clara Pestre; Writing by Alexandra Alper, Editing by Brad Brooks and Rosalba O'Brien)

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Reuters