Here’s To Cecilia Gentili

Mourning a coworker you’ve never physically met is a motherfucker. You grieve, and when people ask why you apologize instead of unburdening. Caveats, explanations, I can’t imagine what the people who were really close to her must be feeling. (The last of these, at least, has the benefit of being heartfelt.) Who am I, you ask yourself, to miss this person who was only ever a face on a Zoom call to me? To be this upset is stealing valor, you say to yourself. To be this sad is embarrassing. 

But to have worked with her, been inspired by her, felt in some way bettered by your time with her, and still somehow be embarrassed to miss her? It won’t do. No, it won’t do, if only because it’s so difficult to imagine Cecilia Gentili being embarrassed herself. She could not have amassed such a record of concrete accomplishment, in so many fields and on so many fronts, if she’d wasted her time apologizing for how she felt. If she felt strongly enough about something, in fact, the world would hear about it.

That’s the Cecilia I knew. She and I and six other writers worked together to spearhead 2023’s New York Times trans solidarity campaign, an effort by Times contributors like us to demand that the paper live up to its own standards in its reporting on trans people, and the ongoing right-wing campaign against them. This effort would not have been the success that it was—signatures from over 1,200 contributors and 34,000 supporters at last count; a marked, if unfortunately impermanent, shift in the paper’s coverage—without her. 

It’s not just the doors her name opened, the connections she worked, the people impressed enough by seeing “Cecilia Gentili” listed at the top to sign their names beneath, though yeah, all of that stuff too. It was more the sense that she would not be wasting her time with this if it weren’t important, or wasting her time with the rest of us if we were doing a rotten job. If Cecilia was on board, then we were on the right track.

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Look at her life. With effectively all the cards American society has to play stacked against her—she was a rape and abuse survivor, an addict with an arrest record and a stint at Rikers, an undocumented immigrant, a sex worker, and a trans woman of color—she rose to the upper echelon of NYC queer culture, in just about every way that a person could. A true polymath, she was a capable administrator and visionary executive with venerable organizations like GMHC as well as her own Trans Equity Consulting and DecrimNY

She was a talented actor, whether on big productions like Ryan Murphy’s Pose or her own recent one-woman show—written by her, of course, like her acclaimed 2022 memoir. In addition to art, activism, and advocacy, she utilized every legal tool at her disposal—lobbying, lawsuits, legislation—to advance the causes she cared about. She wisely saw them all as inextricably linked. Hadn’t her own life proven that?

I never got to meet Cecilia in person. We arranged all the Times stuff over the internet, so our relationship existed in what amounted to a series of work Zooms. But that was enough. She thanked me one time for helping to get the project off the ground, and what can you even say when Cecilia Gentili tells you, “Good job, thanks for the assist?” “You’re very welcome, important figure in New York City queer history, I appreciate it?” I think I just blushed and grinned. 

(I remember she seemed so genuinely happy that someone from outside the community was pitching in, that in my case a cis parent was willing to do this kind of thing to help their nonbinary kid. The other day I told that nonbinary kid I’d worked with Cecilia Gentili, and oh man, I wish I could tell Cecilia about the look of amazement on their face.)

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It’s true that Cecilia is the only time I’ve ever gotten to know someone personally and thought, “Buildings are gonna be named after this person one day” for reasons other than money changing hands. Given her housing-related work, this is a very live possibility. But I think her real talent lay in less grandiose successes than those she achieved in Albany or the courts or even on stage. She transformed lives for the better hand to hand, person to person, on a retail basis as well as a wholesale one.

I mean this as the sincerest compliment: This woman was like the trans Bill Brasky, minus the asshole parts. At her memorial service the day after she died, every story of her impact involved the kind of tender loving care you only get from your closest friends, and every one topped the last like they were doing some kind of collective bit.

“She was there for me when I first came out.”

“I met her at a march and had never felt so inspired by a person in my life.”

“When I recovered from surgery, it was on a couch she bought me.”

“A window fell on my fucking face on the way to her birthday party and she called me from a cab with a hook-up for a plastic surgeon at 8 a.m. the next morning.”

It was hard to look around that service, both because it was so packed I was physically unable to face the stage and because I was real fucking sad and my eyes were literally downcast. She was part of the best thing I’ve ever done in my life, and now she’s gone, and that’s hard. That’s fucking hard. But even a cursory glance showed me people crying into each other’s arms, holding each other close, smiling and nodding along and saying “That was her, all right” with every funny anecdote or tale of her taking no prisoners in her myriad struggles. They were the kind of reactions you only see from friends, and there were hundreds of them. 

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To pack a huge room full of people she touched personally … I mean, if you put everyone I ever shook hands with at my funeral along with friends and family, you still couldn’t fill a room like that. She did so much, so directly, for so many who seem so determined to carry on her work, in her name. Multiply that by whatever exponent has been and will be positively affected by the laws she got passed, the art she leaves behind, and the community she helped build. I don’t know what the number is, but it adds up to a life lived well, and over way too soon.

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