Transgender HIV Activist Cecilia Gentili Is Blazing a Fierce and Funny Trail

Contributing Editor
Cecilia Gentili
Cecilia Gentili
Steven Franko

When she's not putting in eight-hour-plus days as head of policy at GMHC, Cecilia Gentili, 45, likes to do live storytelling events. And one of the stories she likes to tell is about how, growing up in turbulent 1970s Argentina, she felt so out of place in her body and her family that she was convinced she'd been left there by a UFO from a planet "where all the girls have pee-pees like me." So, her grandmother packed her a backpack full of cookies, water and family photos and stayed up under the stars with her until 4 a.m. waiting for the UFO to come take her back. She woke up on the grass the next morning to realize that the UFO had never come. Says Gentili, "So then I thought I was crazy until I was 17."

Maybe that's partly why Gentili, who has flawless comic timing, had such a challenging road ahead of her before she turned her life around and embarked on a path of activism that has led her to her current position as the highest-ranking trans staffer ever at New York City's GMHC, the country's oldest HIV/AIDS agency. Recently, Gentili talked to about how she got from there to here, what she's working on and why her current projects are so important to her.

Tim Murphy: Hi Cecilia! So, first of all, tell us about what you're working on at GMHC.

Cecilia Gentili: We're really working to pay more attention to issues around HIV/AIDS longtime survivors, transgender and gender non-conforming (GNC) people, youth of color, and other groups that are HIV-negative but at risk. For trans people, we're trying to develop a program starting next year that would provide free access to hormones for those whose insurance doesn't cover it. As a trans woman who was undocumented and uninsured for so long, where access to hormone therapy was a problem for me, this is very dear to my heart. I want to look for solutions to problems that I had in the past. People are likelier to have healthier lives when they feel closer to their real selves. There's a beautiful line in an Almodóvar movie about trans people, "It takes a lot of money to look like who we really are." And it does! But when you feel better about yourself, it's easier to look for a job, take your HIV meds or other meds, be in healthier relationships. And hormone therapy is very fundamental for people who choose to do it.

TM: OK, that's great. What else?

CG: Well, we recently opened a mental health clinic, and we'll open a substance use clinic as well soon. We're also working to develop a supervised consumption facility where drug users can inject safely under medical supervision to help avoid overdose and other problems. [Editor's Note: Such sites have operated successfully in Canada and Europe for several years and are under increasing consideration in the U.S. in response to the opioid epidemic.] Our funding for that was just approved.

TM: Great. And what about policy and advocacy on the city, state and federal level?

CG: We're working very closely on the Ending the AIDS Epidemic initiative here in New York State. I was part of the group of transgender and GNC people who helped write the blueprint for Governor Cuomo, so making sure that funding for that doesn't drop is very important to us. We're also working with a coalition of other groups to see if we can increase funding in NYC for homeless youth at risk of HIV.

TM: Wow, so you're very busy. What's a typical day like?

CG: Well, I wake up at 6:30 every morning in Queens to make coffee for me and my partner, who works for the MTA (transit system). I am trying to fulfill the fantasy of a housewife, which I was more into when it was a fantasy, but now that it's reality, I'm not liking it so much anymore. We've been together three years. It's interesting because we met 10 years ago when I was actively using drugs and was in another state of mind, so the relationship didn't go anywhere, but after I went into treatment and started having a -- hmm, how do I say this? -- a job you can claim on your taxes, as my life was changing little by little, we got back together. He's taught me a lot of things I never knew about, like what a 401K is.

Then, I go for a walk in the park. I wish I could say I run or exercise, but I don't. Then, I take a shower and do a short analysis of whether I'm feeling femme, and if so, I do my makeup and hair. Otherwise, I just run out of the house in one of my lesbian outfits, as my partner calls them. Then, I come to work, where I supervise three people who help me with the whole community organizing part of my job, mobilizing our GMHC family for events; disseminating the info, press releases for rallies and protests at City Hall, that sort of thing. Then, I spend a lot of hours on phone calls or in actual meetings with coalitions like the LGBT Health Equity Coalition, Ending the Epidemic, the Homeless Youth Coalition.

Then, I spend some of my time learning things. GMHC has this amazing program called GMHC U., where people who work here take classes like how to be a better manager, or to learn Excel, a huge array. I love this because I don't have a master's or a doctorate, so I learn from working with people who are generous enough to teach me. Then, I'm also the chair of GMHC's Transgender Action Committee. We're the ones who came up with our Preferred Gender Pronoun campaign. We also make sure that everyone who comes to GMHC knows that they may well be having lunch with transgender people and what they should know about that, like sensitivity training.

In the evenings, I like to meet with friends, other trans women mostly, and I do my storytelling events. I don't know if you can print any of my stories other than the UFO one!

TM: Wow, you are really busy all day. And it sounds like you've had a crazy journey from the UFO days until now.

CG: In Argentina in the 1970s under a dictator, there was so much repression. Gay and trans people were either killed or underground. I grew up in a really small town in Santa Fe, so it wasn't until college, in Rosario, that I met my first trans person, Annalia. I freaked out and said, "Oh my God, I am like you." She helped me, and then I met this other trans person who took me to live with her, helped me with this whole process of transitioning, giving me hormones. She was my trans mother and she died of complications from AIDS because she wouldn't admit she was HIV-positive. She was in denial.

So, in Argentina I started living my life as a woman, but I had to stop school, couldn't get a job, because I was being bullied and assaulted. I also noticed a lot of guys wanted to have sex with me, so I thought, "Maybe I should charge them," and that's what I did. I did sex work for about 20 years, and in the middle of it, I came to the U.S. thinking I'd be able to do something different, that it would be paradise with people waiting for me at the airport with jobs. But none of that happened, so I kept doing sex work in Miami and then New York.

TM: What do you think you learned about sex work in all those years?

CG: It has a lot of negative press from people who don't understand the difference between sex work and trafficking. People think everyone is doing sex work against their will, but that's not totally true. For me, I thought I chose to do sex work, but over time I came to understand that I didn't really choose to. Just because I didn't really have a problem with it doesn't mean that I chose it. It was survival. I have many friends I did sex work with who still do it, and they lead very healthy lives. For me, I had a history of sexual abuse as a child, so it wasn't really the best thing to do because it was a reminder of that. So, drugs became very handy to numb myself. I did drugs for many years. And I was undocumented here in the U.S. at the time. But I think sex work should be legal. The shady stuff around it happens because it's done in the dark.

TM: Right. So, how did you get to today?

CG: I went to jail, Rikers, in 2009 on possession charges. Jail sucked. I was also detoxing from heroin and half of the men in jail wanted to fuck me and the other half wanted to kill me. And then while I was in Rikers, ICE, immigration and customs enforcement, came to get me and took me to an immigration detention center. And then something good finally came out of being trans. They didn't know where to house me because it was dangerous for me to be with the men, but the women didn't want me, so they let me out with an ankle bracelet. Then, my parole officer said, "Why don't you get clean?" And I said, "How do you do that?" And she said, "Well, you can go to detox," so, I said OK and I went to detox for seven days. The fog started lifting. I didn't have any kind of health coverage because I was undocumented, but they still found a recovery place that took me for 17 months. And, while I was there getting clean, I applied for asylum and I got it.

So, when I left treatment, I had a work permit and I was going to the LGBT Community Center for counseling, where they asked if I wanted to be a peer intern, so I did that. A while after, I applied for a job as a patient navigator and manager of the trans health clinic at APICHA, [an LGBTQ-serving health center]. And then I made a decision to try to get into policy, which led to me being assistant director of policy here at GMHC, and I was promoted to head of policy in six months. This all took place over about seven years.

TM: Wow, Cecilia. I am completely blown away by your story. How do you think you got from there to here?

CG: I wish I could tell you that it was God, but I don't believe in anything. I think it was a mixture of things. First of all, I'm pretty fucking awesome! [laughs]. Second, I had the support of my community and, third, I had the support of people who invested me, all the way up to this policy position. I know that not everybody is as lucky as I am.

TM: What do you draw from your own experiences into your policy work?

CG: I think people like me [coming from a vulnerable community and having faced intense challenges] have an extreme advantage when they leave those realities and come into policy work. I didn't read a book about being homeless: I was fucking homeless! I didn't read a book about what heroin does to your body: I shot 20 bags of dope a day. I can talk with a different authority because I lived all those issues. And I found organizations that thought my experience had value, and that is a beautiful thing.

TM: It is. So I have to ask you, what would current Cecilia say to the Cecilia of about ten years ago?

CG: I'd say, you know, you've been very naïve and a little bit negative, and I think if you start looking at life with different eyes, you can do amazing things. You just have to focus and stop beating yourself up and you can be as amazing as you want to be. Seek help because it's there, focus on what you want and work really hard.

I know that sounds really corny, but there it is!