Cecilia Gentili

Cecilia Gentili

On this date in 1972, Cecilia Gentili — transgender activist, performer and author — was born in Gálvez, Argentina. She came out as gay at age 12 and as transgender at 18. Her mother, Esmeralda del Pilar Ceci de Gentili, cleaned houses and was prone to depression. Her father, Terdinando Gentili, was a butcher who reportedly spent more time with his mistress than at home. The family struggled financially.

Gentili was molested for years by a neighbor, starting when she was 6. Sex became a survival mechanism, she later said. She was close to her Indigenous maternal grandmother, who took her to church. Both stopped attending after the Baptist pastor berated them for letting Gentili wear her grandma’s jewelry. “That was the end of church,” Gentili wrote in her 2022 book “Faltas: Letters to Everyone in My Hometown Who Isn’t My Rapist.”

Enrolling in college in Rosario, she met trans women for the first time, and with hormones began transitioning. Tired of being bullied and assaulted and unable to get a job outside of sex work, she left for the U.S. in 2000. More sex work in Miami and New York and heroin addiction followed, but after serving several jail sentences, she was able to get clean and was granted asylum. She became a U.S. citizen in 2022.

An internship with the LGBT Community Center in Lower Manhattan led to a position from 2012-16 with the Apicha Community Health Center developing transgender health services. The program expanded from serving 27 patients in 2012 to over 500 in 2016.

Working from 2016-19 at GMHC, founded as the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, she rose to managing director of policy. Asked in a 2017 interview with TheBody (HIV-related news and information) how she got from incarceration and addiction to directing policy, Gentili said, “I wish I could tell you that it was God, but I don’t believe in anything.”

She founded Decrim NY, a coalition working to decriminalize and destigmatize sex work, and Trans Equity Consulting in 2019. Her one-woman show “The Knife Cuts Both Ways,” called a “hilarious and raunchy” autobiographical take on a trans woman’s multicultural experience, opened in 2018 at Dixon Place on Chrystie Street in Manhattan. She had a recurring, guest star role in “Pose,” an FX drama that ran for 26 episodes in 2018-21 and explored the LGBTQ+ ballroom dance culture in the 1980s and ’90s.

Another one-woman show, “Red Ink,” debuted Off-Broadway in 2023. She introduced each of about a dozen vignettes with “I’m an atheist, but …” and went on to explain how she met what could be described as God where she least expected it. “As I left the show, I was struck by the sensation that God can be everywhere you look — even on a stranger’s dick,” wrote a reviewer on Condé Nast’s Them online.

She was a plaintiff in a 2020 challenge to the Trump administration’s erasure of protections under the Affordable Care Act for gay and transgender patients. Gentili’s essay “Tango Between Two Worlds” was included in the 2023 anthology “Surviving Transphobia” edited by Laura A. Jacobs.

“Religion is such a complicated issue for most queer and trans people,” Gentili said near the end of her life in 2024. “I used to go with my grandmother to the Baptist church, and they didn’t want me there. They made it very clear. I used to go to the Catholic church, too, and both were such traumatic experiences for me as a queer person. So I came to identify as an atheist, but I know that so many trans people have been able to find a relationship with faith in spaces that include them.” (Interview magazine, Nov. 1, 2023)

Gentili’s death at age 52 at home in Brooklyn was announced by Peter Scotto, her longtime partner. Two men are criminally charged with supplying drugs that an autopsy showed caused her death: heroin laced with fentanyl. Hundreds of people turned out for her funeral presided over by a Catholic priest at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a historic Fifth Avenue church.

The Archdiocese of New York and conservative Catholics went ballistic when they found out about the ceremony. Spokesman Joseph Zwilling and others condemned “the behavior of some of those in attendance at the funeral — including comments like ‘the mother of all whores’ or changing the words of the ‘Ave Maria,’ a sacred hymn, to ‘Ave Cecilia’ to cite just two examples.” (Washington Post, Feb. 18, 2024)

Cardinal Timothy Dolan gave a directive for a Mass of Reparation to be offered to atone for the “sacrilege” at the cathedral. (D. 2024)

Freedom From Religion Foundation