Credit – Leandro Justen

Photography by Leandro Justen

More than 1400 mourners gathered in St. Patrick’s Cathedral bearing an abundance of red roses while dressed in high-fashion funeral attire to commemorate the life of Cecilia Gentili, a storied matriarch of the trans community.

Eulogies during the service, which took place on 15 February, proclaimed her “Saint Cecilia” for her dedicated advocacy in trans healthcare, immigrant rights, HIV prevention and the rights of sex workers.

Trans activist Ceyenne Doroshow said in her eulogy to Gentili: “Y’all may have heard the story that Jesus ministered to all. Cecilia ministered to all.”

“We lost our saint. We lost somebody that we could call no matter what, no matter what time. But this lady worked so hard to make sure girls like me, girls like you, boys like you, are safe, are grounded, are rooted, got healthcare, that sex workers are free.”

Gentili is believed to be the first trans person to ever have a funeral service held in their honour at St. Patrick’s. It was her wish that her funeral service be “dramatic” and “fabulous,” a vision that was meticulously put together by the family and funeral organisers.

Credit – Leandro Justen

The service included a performance from Emmy Award-winning Pose star Billy Porter.

A wide-circulating clip from the service has been met with backlash from Catholics. It shows Cecilia’s daughters Oscar Diaz and Liaam Winslet affectionately describe Cecilia as “this whore, this great whore, Saint Cecilia, the mother of all whores.”

Though the Catholic Church and many of its constituents understand “whore” as pejorative or mocking, the word was affectionately used within Cecilia’s family and community.

“Calling someone a whore was one of the highest compliments Gentili could give,” family funeral organiser Fran Tirado, told Vogue.

In a statement released on behalf of the New York Archdiocese, Father Enrique Salvo, the pastor of St Patrick’s, condemned their “scandalous behaviour.” “The cathedral only knew that family and friends were requesting a funeral Mass for a Catholic, and had no idea our welcome and prayer would be degraded in such a sacrilegious and deceptive way.”

Joseph Zwilling, a spokesperson for the New York Archdiocese, told the Washington Post that Salvo’s statement was in reference to “the behaviour of some of those in attendance at the funeral — including comments like ‘the mother of all whores’ or changing the words of the ‘Ave Maria,’ a sacred hymn, to ‘Ave Cecilia’ to cite just two examples.”

The backlash has led to a petition calling for “an exorcism to rid the church of any remaining evil spirits.”

Credit – Leandro Justen

Doroshow, who helped to organise the funeral, told the Washington Post that she had informed the church about Gentili’s status as a “sex worker advocate, icon and activist” ahead of the service: “And then I told them to Google her, because she’s quite famous.”

“If a cisgender person’s family organises their funeral, does their family tell the church that they were cis? If not, why is that being asked of us?”

In response, the family of Gentili have released a statement: “We brought precious life and radical joy to the Cathedral in historic defiance of the Church’s hypocrisy and anti-trans hatred.

“Cecilia Gentili’s funeral service, which filled the pews in ways the Cathedral only can during Easter service and NYPD funerals, was a reflection of the love she had for her community and a testament to the impact of her tireless advocacy.

“We bestow sainthood upon Cecilia, for her life’s work, for how she ministered, mothered, and loved all people regardless of HIV, immigration, or employment status.

“Her heart and hands reached those the sanctimonious Church continues to belittle, oppress, and chastise, and she changed the material conditions for countless people, including unhoused people and those who needed healthcare.

“The only deception present at St. Patrick’s Cathedral is that it claims to be a welcoming place for all.”

To support Cecilia Gentili’s family and the continuation of her work, a Legacy Fund has been established in her honour.