Cecilia Gentili’s critics missed chance to listen at funeral

Cecilia Gentili

On February 15, more than 1,000 mourners — predominantly LGBTQIA+ people of colour — gathered for the funeral of Argentine American activist Cecilia Gentili at St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.

Gentili was a transgender woman of colour who advocated for the health and dignity of sex workers and LGBTQIA+ people.

She was also a baptised Catholic and therefore entitled to a Catholic funeral, a corporal work of mercy.

Gentili was born in Argentina and, after surviving a childhood of sexual abuse, immigrated to the United States where she was “undocumented, homeless and trafficked for prostitution in the U.S., [and] she also had a heroin addiction,” The New York Times wrote in an obituary.

‘In spite of these hardships, Gentili went on to assume leadership roles in nonprofits, providing health care for trans people and AIDS patients and advocating for the decriminalization of sex work.

Gentili exhibited a life of joy, love and radical acceptance.

However, the funeral garnered criticism and condemnation from a number of Catholic media outlets and figures, including the New York Archdiocese.

It is regrettable, to say the least, that many Catholics have chosen to react in anger, assuming that because Gentili had identified as an atheist, the Catholic funeral was a mockery of the faith.

But in a November 2023 interview Gentili had said, “I have been reexamining my relationship with religion for a long time,” and articulated her renewed intention to attend church on Sundays with her partner.

Detractors have called her funeral “indecent” and “revolting,” labelling those in attendance “rank anti-Catholic bigots.”

The pastor of the cathedral, Fr Enrique Salvo, responded to the public outcry with a formal statement, calling the funeral “scandalous” and “sacrilegious.”

Others have expressed concern that the event may have further harmed trans people’s reputation with the Catholic Church.

But the livestream of the funeral service reveals a liturgy of joy rooted in Christian values of charity, human dignity and hope of everlasting life.

Before the funeral rite began, Black actor and singer Billy Porter delivered a powerful performance of the Gospel hymn “This Day,” a rendition of the Our Father prayer.

Catholic Vote tweeted that Porter’s performance was “mocking the Our Father prayer” and called it “unbelievable and sick.”

Such a response belies cultural ignorance.

The song was written by Edwin Hawkins, a legend of Gospel music. The lyrics emphasize gratitude for God’s love, provision and grace.

One of the most controversial moments occurred when eulogists Liaam Winslet and Oscar Diaz addressing the deceased as, “esta puta, esta gran puta, la santa Cecilia, la madre de todas de las putas,” that is, “this whore, this great whore, saint Cecila, the mother of all whores.”

Such language is understandably shocking to many sensibilities, but context matters.

Within Gentili’s community, the word “whore” is a reclamation of a slur used with affection, much like the word “queer” itself.

Organizer Fran Tirado said that if Gentili called you a whore, this was her highest compliment. Here, a word once used for shame is used to honour a motherly heroine.

This esteem was also on display the moment a woman of colour exclaimed “Ave Cecilia!” during the cantor’s rendition of “Ave Maria” and danced down the aisle, also prompting conservative ire. But “ave” is a greeting akin “O Cecilia” or “Dear Cecilia.”

More importantly, that someone saw the likeness of Mary, mother of compassion, in Gentili should make us hopeful.

Some have criticized the funeral for being “raucous.”

Even Fr James Martin, known for his advocacy for LGBTQIA+ Catholics, commented that when in any sacred place “I feel that you should always err on the side of respect and prudence.”

But by what standards are we deciding those terms? Continue reading

  • Jessica Gerhardt is a singer-songwriter, worship musician, artist, rosary-maker and writer originally from Santa Monica, California.
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