Hundreds of people from across New York City’s LGBTQ community, many overwhelmed with shock and grief, gathered at Judson Memorial Church near Washington Square on the evening of Feb. 7 for a deeply emotional, hours-long memorial service to remember the life of Cecilia Gentili, an influential trans leader and activist who died on Feb. 6 at the age of 52.
Even to those who did not know her, Gentili’s legacy was evident by the strong display of affection and the size of the crowd in the church, which was filled to capacity.
“This is a testament to the impact Cecilia had on every person in this room,” said Gia Love, one of the organizers of the event. “[She] just gave me everything when I didn’t even ask and just made sure I was good, made sure that I was well. The last time Cecilia was in this space was for my birthday. She was so generous — she would just give so much… She always showed up for me, always gave to me, and I was in a bad place for awhile and Cecilia held me and took care of me.”
As attendees filed into the dimly-lit church, soft music played in the background while the main stage featured a display of candles below vibrant photographs of Gentili. The back area featured a large spread of food for attendees who were encouraged to eat after the memorial — a nod to Gentili’s reputation for giving back to the community. In fact, Gentili’s selfless generosity became a recurring theme throughout the night as dozens of speakers recalled moments when she would step up to buy groceries or even purchase a couch for people in times of need. Other speakers recalled the way in which Gentili would embrace them as family when they had nobody else to support them.
“When we say family, we are not just saying that lightly,” said Qween Jean, who also played a leading role at the event and called on the community to pay it forward in Gentili’s memory. “She cared about how we move people forward, how we make that arc towards justice. That is what she dedicated her life to, so that means we all have to continue that.”
An immigrant from Argentina, Gentili made a name for herself in New York City, where she spent years supporting transgender individuals, sex workers, immigrants, people living with HIV, and others. While she was a powerful activist, she also dug in to influence the government through her role as the director of policy at GMHC and in her post as board co-chair of the New Pride Agenda. She delivered change through myriad ways, including when she launched a free health clinic for sex workers in a partnership with Callen-Lorde Community Health Center. Gentili was also a performer, starring on shows like “Pose” on FX — and community members paid tribute to her with several performances and songs during the memorial.
Friends and loved ones embraced each other and sobbed together as speakers continued to deliver heartfelt remarks throughout the evening. Sean Coleman, the executive director of the non-profit Destination Tomorrow, said Gentili created change even when people didn’t notice it. He praised Gentili’s role in facilitating the Trans Equity Fund, which has steered millions of tax dollars to organizations serving transgender individuals across the state, and he remembered her as a leader who built bridges between communities.
“My fear is that bridge is gone,” he said. “How do we stay united now? I’m going to ask you to carry on her legacy, and her legacy was to make sure all of us be free together.”
Another speaker, Tiffany Jade Munroe, recalled meeting Gentili and quickly forming a close bond with her.
“I felt like I knew her for years — how she opened up to me,” Munroe said. “She was like, ‘Bitch, I need you in my family,’ and I was like, ‘OK, we can work that out.'”
Speakers continued to deliver remarks for hours, including LaLa B Holston-Zannell of the American Civil Liberties Union, Ceyenne Doroshow of the non-profit GLITS, Grace Detrevarah of the Osborne Association, and countless others.
Qween Jean concluded the speeches shortly after 10 p.m. with a series of chants and reminders of the issues Gentili championed, from sex workers’ rights to the rights and self-determination of Palestinian people in the midst of the Israel-Gaza war that has killed tens of thousands of people in Gaza. Gentili was arrested in October at a demonstration calling for a cease-fire in Gaza. A fellow cast member of “Pose,” Indya Moore, was also arrested in that demonstration.
“We will rise up for Cecilia,” Qween Jean said.
Doroshow said a public service will be held in Brooklyn on Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, at the intersection of Madison St. and Bushwick Ave., which is home to a Methodist Church. That event will be open to community leaders, politicians, and others, Doroshow said, while Gentili’s going-home service on Feb. 15 will be held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and will be intended for family.
“We’re going to lift her high and bring her out,” Doroshow said. “Cecilia Gentili’s funeral will be iconic — a trans woman who came through every obstacle in the world will be eulogized at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.”