Valentina Sampaio is on the 2020 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue on sale now.
CNN  — 

She is no stranger to making history. In 2017 she became the first trans woman to appear on the cover of Vogue Paris. Two years later, she was the first openly transgender model to be hired by Victoria’s Secret. Now in 2020, 23-year-old Valentina Sampaio continues to break barriers in the modeling industry by becoming the first transgender woman to be featured in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.

The Brazilian model has been named as one of the edition’s 2020 “rookies,” and models a white one-piece by Haus of Pink Lemonaid and a shimmery taupe bikini by Triangl.

Sports Illustrated (SI) has become a respected brand in the modeling world. Its swimsuit issue has featured some of the industry’s most successful names, since launching 56 years ago. Sampaio is joining the elite ranks alongside stars like Heidi Klum and Tyra Banks.

In an open essay on what it means to be part of SI, Sampaio praised the magazine for creating another issue that champions “a diverse set of multitalented, beautiful women in a creative and dignified way,” adding that she is “excited and honored” to take part. While it means a lot to her to model for SI, she is even more inspired by the significance it has for the LGBTQ community as a whole.

Sampaio, who hails from a fishing village in northern Brazil, has been using her platform to fight for transgender rights. She explains that the beauty of her home country is contrasted by brutal crimes against the transgender community. In a previous interview with Vogue, she pointed out that in 2019, 129 transgender people were murdered in Brazil.

“Our protection comes from God. Even with the new laws, people don’t widely respect and comply with them, and the authorities aren’t enforcing them either,” she was quoted as saying.

Her success as a model has not come easily, fighting an uphill battle against discrimination, but she realizes her status gives her the opportunity to make a positive difference. Beyond that, Sampaio believes it is her responsibility to stand up for Brazil’s trans population. “I recognize that I am one of the fortunate ones,” she writes in SI, “and my intention is to honor that as best I can.”

In recent years, transgender models have been gaining visibility – landing “firsts,” such as magazine covers, beauty campaigns and spots on the runway. Personal journeys have also been shared to the public. In 2019, American model Nathan Westling, formerly Natalie, detailed his decision to transition in an exclusive interview with CNN Style. He has continued to model for top brands, including closing Helmut Lang’s Summer-Spring 2020 runway at New York Fashion Week.

For Sampaio, change means leading by example and spreading love and acceptance one person at a time. “I believe that better people build a better world for all of us, and I stand for any and everyone who, like me, suffers prejudice for not fitting into society’s standards.”

Her message for the world is one of resounding empathy. She vows to persevere in her mission for equality and to continue to embolden people who are marginalized. Sampaio ended her essay, with gratitude.

“Thank you, SI, for seeing and respecting me as I truly am. For understanding that more than anything, I am human. Thank you for supporting me in continuing to spread a message of love, compassion and unity for ALL.”