Whenever you encounter the work of a person who is truly down for you and your community, you know it immediately even if you’re experiencing it from afar. Legendary trans organizer, author, and actress Cecilia Gentili, who passed away on February 6, was one of those people.
You could read her words, see her lead protests for sex work decriminalization and immigration reform and trans liberation, hear her speak about her work in HIV/AIDs prevention and awareness, or watch her performances and feel how much she cared for us, for everyone who needed that care the most. A true titan in the fight for a better world, Gentili believed that “[E]quality is an endless cake” and spent every working moment of her life over the last two decades putting herself on the line for undocumented immigrants, sex workers, and queer and trans people everywhere.
Gentili was born in 1972 in Galvez, Santa Fe, Argentina to parents who would split not soon after. As documented in her 2022 memoir, Faltas: Letters to Everyone in My Hometown Who Isn’t My Rapist, she spent a lot of her time with her extended family, especially her grandmother, who was the only familymember truly open and accepting of Gentili’s queerness and femininity. Although her childhood in Galvez was difficult and filled with the trauma of sexual violence, she also wrote of the love and joy she experienced in the homes of some of the people she loved.
When Gentili decided to come out as a trans woman as a young adult, her life in Argentina became much more complicated. In a 2016 NBC News profile on Gentili, she explained that her “daily routine […] consisted of being verbally and physically attacked on the streets, with some of the abuse coming from the local authorities,” as it was illegal at that time for anyone to wear the clothing of “opposite” sex. At 26, Gentili decided to move to the U.S. in order to live more freely and openly as a trans woman. In the late 1990s, as Gentili tried to get her footing secured in the U.S., she struggled with drug use, and returned to sex work to make ends meet. In a 2021 op-ed in The New York Times, she wrote about her experiences:
When I took my first client as a sex worker in the 1980s, I had no other choice. It was right after the fall of the dictatorship in Argentina. As a young trans woman, I found that sex work was the only way for me to survive, but I faced constant harassment and violence, especially from la policía. So, I left my home to come to the United States, thinking things would be different.
But when I got here, I had no more luck. On top of being trans, now I also struggled with being undocumented and learning English. Once again, I turned to sex work to stay afloat. Within two weeks I was arrested walking down Washington Avenue in Miami Beach; the police laughed at me, misgendered me and left me in a prison cell full of men.
After moving to New York City in 2003, Gentili continued to struggle, eventually facing legal challenges in 2009 following an arrest for drug-possession. A year later, Gentili applied for and received asylum status, which made it possible for her to continue living and work in the States.
These experiences are what would eventually turn Gentili’s sights towards organizing and help her grow into a community caregiver and community mother. Gentili began an internship with The LGBT Center in NYC, working in their Gender Identity Project, and then, with the help of her friend and fellow activist Cristina Herrera, she got a job at the Apicha Community Health Center, first as an HIV peer navigator and later as a trans-health program coordinator.
Soon after, she continued working to help queer people, trans people, sex workers, and other people at higher risk for HIV by becoming the Director of Policy at GMHC. During her time there, she helped create the DecrimNY campaign, which has pushed for the decriminalization of sex work in New York, and she was instrumental in the the eventual passing of two important pieces of legislation for the state — the law that repealed New York’s anti-prostitution law (nicknamed the “Walking while trans” law) and a law that made gender identity and gender expression protected classes under New York state law called the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA).
In that same New York Times op-ed, she continued, “I have spent the last decade of my life fighting for the decriminalization of sex work for adults, to heal all of those times I have been harassed, beaten and raped — not by clients, but by law enforcement officials. […] We believe criminalization of either side of the sex trade does not help protect sex workers, but rather merely perpetuates the social stigma that treats sex work as an inherently harmful activity, a stigma that I have long worked to eradicate.”
Her work didn’t stop there. She continued to organize for the rights of trans people, sex workers, undocumented immigrants, and the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated by founding Trans Equity Consulting, an organization with the mission to “[build] the leadership of trans women of color, and to the centering of sex workers, immigrants and incarcerated peoples as experts in creating a more just world.” In 2021, she also created Cecilia’s Occupational Inclusion Network (COIN), a free healthcare program for sex workers, at the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, the first of its kind on the East Coast. Most recently in October 2023, just a few short months before her death, Gentili was one of hundreds arrested at a protest calling for a ceasefire and the end of the genocide in Gaza organized by Jewish Voice for Peace at Grand Central Terminal in New York City.
On top of her endless community care initiatives and her work attempting to make the world an easier place to live for marginalized people everywhere, she also began sharing her artistic and creative talents with audiences in New York and beyond. She took a very memorable guest spot as Miss Orlando on the hit FX show Pose, a drama about the lives of a group of trans women of color living in New York City in the 1980s. Her memoir, Faltas, was published in 2022 by Little Puss Press, a feminist press run by two trans women, and it both won a Stonewall Book Award for nonfiction and made the transgender nonfiction shortlist for the Lambda Literary Awards in 2023. Following the release of Faltas, she wrote and produced a one-woman, off-Broadway show called Red Ink that dramatized some of her life story and tackled some of the issues she addressed in Faltas. Gentili said about the show, “I wanted [the audience] to laugh, but also to wonder why we have to make trans people’s lives so hard.”
When you’re really sitting with the details of Gentili’s life and work, it’s not difficult to see exactly who she was and who she was to so many. Following her death this week, an absolute outpouring of love and appreciation from queer and trans people everywhere — some who knew Gentili well and some who didn’t know her personally at all — came from every single corner of the internet. Most, if not all of them, have one thing in common: They all mentioned how much Gentili cared. Cared for people just like her, cared for people completely different than her, cared for the well-being of trans people, sex workers, undocumented immigrants, and everyone who did or didn’t fall into one of those categories. She had a vision of the future that included an easier and more beautiful life for all of us, and she reminded everyone around her the possibility of that vision. By all accounts, she was a true woman of the people, not just because she worked for us but also because she believed in us and she never stopped proving to us that we’re capable of better. And on top of it all, she had an incredible sense of humor about herself and about the world that helped her and the people in her life move more easily in the world.
In a 2022 profile on Gentili in Vulture, she told Harron Walker about her time in an addiction recovery treatment program and said, “In treatment, one of the counselors told me that I have to find something I enjoy as much as that feeling of shooting heroin, and that came to be community and working for my community.”
Rereading those words, I’m struck by how straightforward and simple the answer was to her. It further proves how much she saw organizing and her work within her communities not as something she had to do but as something she needed and wanted to do because it made surviving the adversities of this world worth surviving. It’s rare to find a person, an organizer, a caregiver as dedicated and steadfast in her belief that our world could change if we try hard enough to make it happen. The immensity of this loss will reverberate throughout her communities and the world that will now miss her and her work.
It’s up to us to ensure that work continues, to make sure everyone gets a slice of “cake” when they need it. Let’s not disappoint her.
A virtual gathering to honor Cecilia Gentili is taking place this Sunday at 5pm EST.