Argentina-born and New York City-based transgender and sex workers’ rights advocate Cecilia Gentili died Tuesday. The beloved leader had just celebrated her 52nd birthday in January and was known for spending most of her life fighting for the rights of undocumented immigrants, sex workers, and LGBTQIA+ community. Her passing was announced in a statement posted to her Instagram though the cause of death has not been revealed at this time: “Our beloved Cecilia Gentili passed away this morning to continue watching over us in spirit. 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.”
Born in Gálvez, Santa Fe, Gentili moved from Argentina to Miami at 26 to seek a better life for herself and especially safety as a trans woman. During her time in Argentina, the laws prohibited dressing in attire considered for the opposite gender than what was assigned at birth which led to the harassment of transgender women by police. Following her move, she struggled to find employment due to her legal status, and worked through recovering from her drug addiction. She eventually moved to New York City in 2003 where she engaged in sex work and sometime after was imprisoned in Rikers Island on drug possession. In 2011, she was granted asylum in the United States. Since then, she’s worked toward improving the lives of trans women of color through her advocacy work.
She started out at the NYC Anti-Violence Project as an intern through The LGBT Center’s Gender Identity Project in 2010. She then worked in a trans health clinic at the Apicha Community Health Center which led to her position as Managing Director of Policy at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), the first organization dedicated to HIV/AIDS prevention in the world. In 2019, she founded Trans Equity Consulting, a firm dedicated to providing consulting services to the LGBTQIA+ community. She was also the co-founder of Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, whose Cecilia’s Occupational Inclusion Network (COIN) clinic is the first health center in the East Coast made specifically for sex workers.
Gentili was also active in the decriminalization of sex work. She led and participated in the creation and advocacy of the DecrimNY campaign which advocated for legislation that ensures sex workers are not criminalized. This success of the campaign repealed the “Walking While Trans” law which led to the criminalization, harassment, and profiling of trans women.
Outside of her advocacy, Gentili also explored creative work through her acting and writing. She played Ms. Orlando in the FX series Pose which centered on the experiences of trans women of color amid the AIDS crisis in New York during the ’80s. Her one-woman show The Knife Cuts Both Ways in 2017 was inspired by her experiences as a multicultural queer woman. She also wrote a memoir, Faltas: Letters to Everyone in My Hometown Who Isn’t My Rapist, chronicles her life as a queer child in Argentina during the 1970s through a series of letters published in 2022. Gentili also had an autobiographical off-Broadway show entitled “Red Ink”, which was set to make a comeback this April. “I wanted them to laugh, but also to wonder why we have to make trans people’s lives so hard,” Gentili told Them about “Red Ink.”
“Utterly heartbroken. Our community will never be the same without you, Cecilia. Thank you for giving us so much, relentlessly, every single day. You transformed so many lives and shined a light across Jackson Heights, Corona, and beyond. Que en paz descanse,” Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote in the comments on the post announcing her passing.
A virtual gathering is being held Feb. 11 at 5 pm ET to honor her memory.