Cecilia Gentili, a prominent public health advocate, author and actor who fought for trans rights and helped launch the movement to decriminalize sex work in New York, has died at 52.
News of her death was posted on her Instagram on Tuesday evening.
“Our beloved Cecilia Gentili passed away this morning to continue watching over us in spirit,” the post read. “Please be gentle with each other and love one another with ferocity.”
The news prompted online tributes from LGBTQ+ groups, public health workers, activists and elected officials.
“New York’s LGBTQ+ community has lost a champion in trans icon Cecilia Gentili,” Gov. Kathy Hochul stated on X, formerly known as Twitter. “As an artist and steadfast activist in the trans rights movement, she helped countless people find love, joy and acceptance.”
In its own social media post, the New York City health department called Gentili a “beloved collaborator, partner and friend.”
Gentili was well known in New York’s public health community for working to improve access to services for trans people and sex workers and reduce the spread of HIV.
She founded the company Transgender Equity Consulting in 2019, after serving as director of policy at GMHC, a nonprofit dedicated to HIV care and advocacy. Before joining GMHC, she helped develop transgender health services at Apicha Community Health Center, which focuses on care for Asian American, Pacific Islander and LGBTQ+ populations as well as people living with HIV.
Gentili began expanding her work in the arts in recent years. She won a Stonewall Book Award for her 2022 memoir “Faltas: Letters to Everyone in My Hometown Who Isn’t My Rapist,” and recently launched the one-woman, off-Broadway show “Red Ink.” She also made cameos on the FX show “Pose,” which chronicled New York City’s 1980s ballroom scene.
Gentili advocated for a range of causes, including the successful effort to repeal a state loitering law known informally as the “walking while trans ban.” She was often seen on the frontlines of protests and was arrested in October at a New York City rally calling for a cease-fire in Gaza.
As a public speaker, Gentili often peppered her speeches with humor, while urging those in the audience to do more to fight for people on the margins.
“Your rainbow doesn’t do s—t if you are not doing what you need to do for sex workers,” she told the crowd at a 2019 Pride rally in Central Park.
Gentili spoke openly about her own experiences earning a living through sex work after moving to New York from Argentina to live more safely as a trans woman.
“In doing so, she inspired countless others and truly paved the way for our communities — especially sex workers and trans women of color — to access high-quality and judgment-free healthcare,” Patrick McGovern, CEO of the nonprofit LGBTQ+ health care provider Callen-Lorde, said in a statement.
Gentili received a Community Health Award from Callen-Lorde for her leadership in 2019. She worked with the organization to launch a clinic for sex workers, called Cecilia’s Operational Inclusion Network, or COIN.
While pushing for more services for sex workers, Gentili always made clear that she opposed any police involvement in the sex trade, which put her at odds with critics of full decriminalization.
“There’s a long history of non-sex workers making decisions for sex workers and this is a great opportunity to craft those services from what people in the community say they need,” Gentili told Gothamist in 2019.
In an interview published in November, Gentili said she was spending more time away from the city. She said she had purchased a house in Upstate New York and was exploring her relationship with religion.
A memorial service for Gentili will be held at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday.