Meet the first of 8 Brooklyn finalists for the David Prize: transgender advocate Cecilia Gentili

cecilia gentili david prize finalist
Cecilia Gentili is a renowned transgender activist who has worked to improve funding for transgender causes, improve healthcare access for trans people, and decriminalize sex work. Gentili is one of eight Brooklyn-based finalists for the 2022 David Prize.
Photo by Janick Gilpin/The David Prize

Eight Brooklynites are among the finalists for the 2022 David Prize, an award that celebrates “extraordinary” New Yorkers by giving them the funds for projects that aim to change New York City for the better.

The David Prize gives $200,000 of unrestricted capital to each of five New Yorkers from all boroughs who can positively impact the city with social, economic, cultural or environmental advocacy to solve urgent problems. 

“We are looking for ideas where the funding can be really catalytic or provide a real boost for visionary New Yorkers,” said Erika Boll, David Prize executive director. “We take into consideration what New York needs most every year when we choose who to fund. Those priorities change, so we ultimately look at the person, the right people to build what they say they want to build and we wanna make sure that is urgent.”

david prize sign
New Yorkers seeking to improve New York City can apply or be nominated for the David Prize, which awards each of five winners a $200,000 grant. Courtesy of The David Prize/Facebook

Immigration, housing, education and the reclaiming of public spaces have been common causes that the prize supports. Boll said that in the past couple of years, the organization has received many nominations of people working to support for front-line workers in a “broad sense.”

“It’s not just healthcare,” she said. “It’s been everything from folks in hospitality to nightlife. We have seen a lot from street vendors to folks who continue to make New York city run as beautifully and joyfully as it always has been, but who may have historically not been considered what is generally understood as ‘front-line workers.”

In 2021, two Brooklynites were among the winners — Felicia Wilson, CEO and founder of What About Us Inc., a mentoring organization for young adults transitioning from foster care to adulthood, and Fela Barclift, founder and director of Little Sun People, a care center specially tailored for Black and Brown children.

Brooklyn Paper will break down this year’s list of finalist based in Kings County starting with Cecilia Gentili, a sex work and transgender rights activist. 

Gentili moved from Argentina to the United States in 1999 searching of a better, safer life as an out transgender woman. She was undocumented and became a sex worker to make a living while fighting a severe drug addiction. She was incarceration and placed in immigration detention.

“I was in Rikers Island, locked up with men even when my transition was established, which was dangerous for me, and I needed substance dependency treatment,” Gentili said. “As soon as I got the services I needed, my passion for advocating and helping others began.”

Since she received asylum, Gentili has become a renowned transgender activist whose work has impacted the queer and trans movement. She has helped shape policy, obtain government funding for trans-led organizations, and increase transgender New Yorkers’ access to healthcare.

“I am very lucky to have survive the hard realities that my different communities —immigrants, sex workers, transgender people and those who struggle with addictions — have to endure,” Gentili said. “Even after many years of work, the truth is that as progressive as New York is, there are still many transphobic people.”

A few years ago, Gentili was assaulted in the L train. Her aggressor punched her and yelled transphobic slurs at her. “No one did anything,” she said. But she was not discouraged.

She went on to work for New York City’s Apicha Community Health Center, managing a trans health clinic that she grew from four patients to over 500. Then she became the Managing Director of Policy at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis non-profit, the world’s first organization dedicated to HIV/AIDS prevention.

Gentili also led the DecrimNY campaign, which successfully decriminalized sex work in New York. The legislation she promoted repealed the “loitering for purposes of prostitution” law, which many said was unfairly used to target, harass, and arrest trans and gender non-conforming people.

“I was arrested for being a sex worker out of necessity and I thought, ‘This shouldn’t happen to anybody,” she said. “We called it walking while trans, because it mostly affected trans women in Queens that were already targeted by police. They would get arrested for being at the corner. They were stopped, frisked and taken.”

Gentili was the main leader behind the wellness and equity fund for trans folks in NYC, which provided $1.8 million for services that were previously inaccessible. She also spearheaded a free health clinic for sex workers at Callen Lorde and she has trained over 5,000 service providers throughout her career. 

Today, Gentili is the author of Faltas: Letters to Everyone in My Hometown Who Isn’t My Rapist, and she is working on a second book. If she wins the David Prize, Gentili plans to use the funds to bolster her current endeavor, current endeavor: Transgender Equity consulting, which advises businesses on inclusive hiring and safe work spaces.

The five 2022 winners of the David Prize will be announced in October.