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Cecilia Gentili, transgender activist, performer, and author, dies at 52

An undated photo provided by Oscar Diaz shows Cecilia Gentili, an advocate for transgender people and sex workers.OSCAR DIAZ/NYT

NEW YORK — Cecilia Gentili, a fierce advocate for transgender people and sex workers and a powerful legislative lobbyist — as well as an author and a bawdy, searing performer — died Feb. 6 at her home in Brooklyn. She was 52.

Her death was announced by Peter Scotto, her longtime partner. He did not specify the cause.

Ms. Gentili often joked that she had a master’s degree in being an immigrant, a sex worker, a trans woman, and an addict. She was an expert because she had lived all of those things.

She was born in Argentina and had been sexually abused since she was a child. As a trans woman in Argentina, she said, the only work she had been able to find was prostitution. She left South America for the United States in 2000, seeking safety and a better life. That did not happen. At least not at first.

In the country without legal permission, homeless, and trafficked for prostitution in the United States, she also had a heroin addiction. After multiple arrests, she found herself in the men’s ward at Rikers Island, where, she said, she was raped and beaten.

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Immigration detention was her next billet, but there, as at Rikers, there were no safe facilities for a trans woman, and so the authorities sent her home — to her trafficker — with an ankle bracelet to monitor her whereabouts. An immigration case worker, however, was able to secure a place for her in a rehab facility, and after 17 months there she was clean.

Ms. Gentili’s first stop after rehab was the Center, a community hub for LGBTQ+ people, on West 13th Street in Manhattan, and she liked to tell how her mentors there helped her write a resume. Sex work had given her multiple marketable skills, she realized. She was terrific on the phone, adept at scheduling, and she excelled at customer service.

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Ms. Gentili worked for several years with the Apicha Community Health Center, in SoHo, as an HIV peer navigator and then as the trans health program coordinator, managing a clinic that grew from four patients to more than 500.

Fiercely ambitious and passionate about her clients’ welfare, she excelled at this work, as well as the policy work that supported it. She soon became managing director of policy at GMHC, the four-decades-old nonprofit (originally called the Gay Men’s Health Crisis) dedicated to the prevention of AIDS. In 2018, she founded Trans Equity Consulting, which advises companies on equity issues and serves as an advocate for trans women of color, sex workers, immigrants and incarcerated people.

Ms. Gentili had many legislative achievements. She lobbied for the passage of the New York State Gender Expression and Discrimination Act, which became law in 2019, and the repeal of the so-called Walking While Trans Ban, which had prohibited loitering for the purpose of prostitution and had disproportionately targeted trans women and women of color.

She was also one of two lead plaintiffs in a successful lawsuit against the Trump administration, which had tried to roll back trans protections enshrined in the Affordable Care Act. At her death, she had been lobbying to decriminalize sex work and helping to draft legislation that would do so through another of her organizations, DecrimNY. One such bill is in committee in Albany.

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“New York’s LGBTQ+ community has lost a champion in trans icon Cecilia Gentili,” Governor Kathy Hochul posted on the social media site X, formerly known as Twitter, after Ms. Gentili’s death. “As an artist and steadfast activist in the trans rights movement, she helped countless people find love, joy and acceptance.”

But Ms. Gentili was more than just a skilled lobbyist, self-taught policy wonk and mentor to trans people. She was a gifted storyteller whose accounts of her harrowing experiences were helpful as she went through the asylum process and which she later turned into tragicomic gold.

Noah Lewis, a transgender rights lawyer whom she met when she applied for her name change, was captivated by her. He roped her into performing a monologue at a trans pride storytelling event in 2013. Ms. Gentili would go on to create and perform two one-woman shows and to be cast as a sketchy body enhancer, armed with a syringe of filler, in “Pose,” the FX series about the drag ball culture of the 1980s.

In 2022, Ms. Gentili published her first book, “Faltas: Letters to Everyone in My Hometown Who Isn’t My Rapist” (faltas is Spanish for faults). It is a coming-of-age tale structured as letters to her friends, family and tormentors from her complicated, horrific upbringing. The Los Angeles Times called it “at once agonizing and hilarious, angry and forgiving, beautiful and unbearable.” Her editor, Cat Fitzpatrick of LittlePuss Press, a small feminist publishing house, said she had been begging Ms. Gentili to write her stories down for years.

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“Like Socrates,” Fitzpatrick said by phone, “Cecilia was skeptical of the written word.” Stories changed and grew in response to an audience, she felt. A collection of letters was her solution.

In her letter to Juan Pablo, the only child like her in her hometown, she wrote of the time her mother took her to the local witches for a stomach ailment. As they were leaving, she said, one witch whispered, “I can make you a girl.”

“I had learned from Disney movies that nothing came for free or lasted for long,” Ms. Gentili wrote. “But even if it was for one long night, like Cinderella, even if I didn’t get to casually leave a shoe behind to be found by the prince, to imagine the opportunity was beautiful.”

She was born Jan. 31, 1972, in Gálvez, a city in northeastern Argentina. Her father, Terdinando Gentili, was a butcher who spent more time with his mistress than at home, Cecilia Gentili recalled. Her mother, Esmeralda del Pilar Ceci de Gentili, cleaned houses and suffered from depression.

The family was poor and lived in government housing, and there, when she was 6, Cecilia was molested by a neighbor, who continued to abuse her until she left home at 18. She was bullied in school and menaced outside, and sex, she said, became a survival mechanism, although at a terrible cost to her.

But Cecilia had a champion in her maternal grandmother, her abu, an Indigenous woman who lived in rural Argentina. When Cecilia came to stay with her, the grandmother let her wear her jewelry and clothes. One Sunday, when she and Cecilia attended the local Baptist church, and Cecilia was sporting a pair of her grandmother’s earrings, the pastor complained. Abu told the pastor off, and never returned.

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“That was the end of church,” Ms. Gentili wrote in her letter to her grandmother, which makes up a chapter in her book, “but not of your relationship with God. You continued to read the Bible to me every night until I fell asleep with most of your jewelry on.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.