Cecilia Gentili, longtime advocate for trans people, immigrants, and sex workers, dies at 52

Cecilia Gentili at an mpox-related demonstration in July of 2022.
Cecilia Gentili at an mpox-related demonstration in July of 2022.
Donna Aceto

Cecilia Gentili, a prominent New York-based activist who spent years advocating for the rights of transgender individuals, sex workers, immigrants, and others, died on Feb. 6, according to an announcement posted on her Instagram page.

“Our beloved Cecilia Gentili passed away this morning to continue watching over us in spirit,” the post stated. “Please be gentle with each other and love one another with ferocity. We will be sharing more updates about services and what is to come in the following days. At this time, we’re asking for privacy, time, and space to grieve.”

Gentili was a mainstay at demonstrations in New York City — particularly around sex work — and she would often draw connections from her own experience as an immigrant who engaged in sex work herself. But the impact she made on the community went far beyond demonstrations and rallies. She was very active in recent years when she launched initiatives such as COIN, or “Cecilia’s Occupational Inclusion Network,” which was a partnership with Callen-Lorde Community Health Center to provide a free health clinic for sex workers.

“When we had a customer or a client, we would say to each other, ‘Go and get your coin, girl!’” Gentili told Gay City News in 2021. “It was so significant and descriptive of the work that we do.”

In 2019, Gentili started Trans Equity Consulting, which specializes in LGBTQ diversity, equity, and inclusion consulting. Prior to that, she served as the director of policy at GMHC from 2016 to 2019, where she fought for people living with HIV/AIDS and championed legislative causes like the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), which was signed into law in 2019. From 2012 until 2016, Gentili worked with Apicha Community Health Center, where she helped develop the organization’s trans health services into one program, according to her biography on Trans Equity Consulting’s website.

Cecilia Gentili speaks at the 25th anniversary memorial for Marsha P. Johnson at the Christopher Street Pier in 2017.
Cecilia Gentili speaks at the 25th anniversary memorial for Marsha P. Johnson at the Christopher Street Pier in 2017.Donna Aceto

Gentili was also active in the founding of DecrimNY, which was founded in 2019 and fought for sex work decriminalization in New York State. The community’s gains in recent years — thanks to advocacy efforts by Gentili and others — include repealing an outdated loitering law known as a ban on “Walking While Trans” and establishing a New York State fund for organizations serving transgender individuals known as the Lorena Borjas Trans Equity Fund, which was named after the late trans activist and community leader who was a revered figure in Queens — particularly Jackson Heights — before she died in March of 2020. Gentili told Gay City News at the time that she was meeting with Borjas weekly during the time leading up to her death.

“I remember going with Lorena in the middle of the night,” Gentili recalled. “She would walk with a bag full of condoms. She would educate people not to have more than two condoms because police could use them as evidence and charge them with prostitution. At the same time, she would walk back and forth to make sure girls had the condoms to do their work.”

During the Trump era, Gentili and Tanya Asapansa-Johnson Walker sued the Trump administration over a rule that eliminated non-discrimination protections based on gender identity and sex stereotyping under the Affordable Care Act. In 2021, Gentili was tapped to be part of a working group convened by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg on how the DA’s office could improve its engagement with trans, gender non-conforming, and non-binary community-based advocates, employees, survivors, and witnesses.

Gentili had a visible presence at some of the most timely rallies in recent years. In June of 2020, she was one of the speakers who delivered remarks at a rally at the Stonewall Inn just hours after the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling barring employment discrimination for LGBTQ workers. At a 2019 event at the LGBT Center to announce plans for a monument dedicated to Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, Gentili said, “Me, as a trans person, I see myself reflected. Me, as a person of color, I see myself reflected. Me, as a former sex worker, I see myself reflected. Me, as a person who lived in this city for 10 years as an undocumented person, I see myself reflected.”

On a frigid day in February of 2022, Gentili delivered impassioned remarks at a rally outside City Hall as folks blasted the Adams administration over three anti-LGBTQ appointees. Later that same year, this time on a hot summer day, Gentili attended a Foley Square rally to demand action on the mpox outbreak — and she urged the community to keep sex workers in mind.

“I want to remind you all that we cannot forget sex workers because for so many of us, sex is not just pleasure,” Gentili said. “It’s also work. And what are we going to do if we can’t work? What we are going to do if we don’t have money? Sex workers are being forced to the impossible situation of choosing between prioritizing their health or having enough money to survive.”

Gentili hailed from Argentina and moved to the United States to seek a better life, and she spent time living in both Miami and New York, according to her biography. But during the decade-long stretch when she was undocumented, she said she engaged in sex work and substance use, which led to interactions with police and multiple arrests. She later gained legal status and received recovery services, allowing her to, in her words, gain “more control over her life.”

Activist Cecilia Gentili speaks at a 2022 demonstration condemning the Adams administration over anti-LGBTQ appoontees.
Activist Cecilia Gentili speaks at a 2022 demonstration condemning the Adams administration over anti-LGBTQ appoontees.Donna Aceto

Gentili’s legacy also includes acting and writing. She penned a memoir in 2022 called “Faltas: Letters to Everyone in My Hometown Who Isn’t My Rapist” and starred as Ms. Orlando on the FX show “Pose.”

The announcement of Gentili’s death sparked an outpouring of emotional comments on Instagram, where countless individuals paid tribute to her and expressed shock.

“OMG…I’m so glad I saw video of her recent bday party and she was surrounded by so much love and community,” said Angelica Ross, who starred in “Pose” with Gentili. “Such a fierce advocate. Rest in Power.” MJ Rodriguez, another cast member from “Pose,” wrote, “Rest in power Cecilia.”

Chase Strangio, the deputy director for Transgender Justice with the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project, also commented, saying, “15 years of deep trans love and storytelling. I am forever grateful. We grieved so many losses together. It feels impossible to grieve your loss. I will carry you always. I love you.”

“I’m so sorry for this deep deep loss,” wrote actor and singer Sara Ramirez. “I still can’t believe it. Thank you Cecilia for all of your love and energy and spirit. We love you so much and always will.”

Activist and author Raquel Willis said, “Heartbroken. Love you, Ceci! Thank you. And I love y’all too. We gone make it.”