Cecilia Gentili and the survivor leadership the anti-trafficking sector devalues

by admin  - February 19, 2024

(Originally published on LinkedIn with the note that this limited remembrance of my experiences with her is nowhere near as powerful or insightful as those who were close to her, who were lucky enough to call her mother, sister, or friend)

I can’t remember when I first heard about Cecilia Gentili, but I remember being immediately awed by her work. We had mutual friends on Facebook and had interacted some, and when she accepted my friend request, I did a little dance of joy. Over the years, there would be times when I’d need help for trafficking survivors in or around New York City that needed to be trans and/or sex work-friendly, and when I’d message a small group of connections for ideas, she would always respond with recommendations for shelters, services, or support.

I didn’t know whether or not Cecilia Gentili was technically a trafficking survivor or not, and to be honest, I didn’t spend much time thinking about it. No one person should ever be defined by their trauma, and it wouldn’t have changed anything in the way I viewed her compassion and advocacy. I know that a good number of trans rights activists, sex worker organizers, and folks who do both have lived experience of human trafficking, but not all discuss it or can be open about it, for a variety of reasons. Some of them find the mainstream framing of trafficking in commercial sex misses the point. Others have been grievously harmed by anti-trafficking language, policies, and programs or find them overly carceral. Others do not see the anti-trafficking sector as caring about their needs, or about other forms of violence against sex workers. Whatever their reasons, I never assume anyone is interested in anti-violence work framed under the anti-trafficking umbrella or what kinds of survivors they may identify as. Cecilia was a powerful woman who had transformed her experiences into a depth of knowledge and experience few accomplish, irrelevant of her specific forms of victimization or recovery.

In 2021, horrified (yet again) at the ways some survivors who support partial criminalization virulently attack and dismiss survivors who don’t support partial criminalization, I wrote a sign-on letter asking for safer spaces and genuine (rather than tokenizing) inclusion of a wide array of survivor voices. I edited it with a few other survivors, and we were very careful to use inclusive language that didn’t invalidate sex workers who have also at other times in their lives experienced trafficking. We offered a space for “people who have experienced force, fraud, or coercion in commercial sex or any form of labor or who began trading sex before the age of 18” to indicate their lived experience when signing, and Cecilia publicly signed on as someone with lived experience of trafficking, as did many other trans and sex worker rights advocates I’d never seen disclose lived experience of trafficking.

Cecilia Gentili, trans Latina activist, sex worker organizer, and all-around icon, had lived experience that fits the Federal definition of human trafficking.

And yet she’d not been actively engaged in the mainstream anti-trafficking movement. Even though she had this particular lived experience, she chose instead to focus her energies on supporting transgender people, immigrants, and sex workers in other anti-violence movements.

In 2023, the White House Gender Policy Council wanted to hold a listening session about “demand reduction.” Having learned from the prior listening session that led to the sign-on letter listed above, they curated a separate space where those who opposed partial criminalization could share their perspectives freely, without being attacked or silenced during the session. I was invited to co-curate the speaker list, and after receiving assurances about respectful ground rules, I reached out to see if Cecilia would be interested in speaking. It felt like a long shot. She was busy, developing a show based on her 2022 book, Faltas: Letters to Everyone in My Hometown Who Isn’t My Rapist. The FX show Pose had sent her into a different level of visibility even outside of her activism and advocacy circles. 

To my surprise, she accepted.

The details of that listening session are confidential, but Cecilia spoke candidly about her experiences as a transgender undocumented immigrant sex worker. Like many others before her have articulated, she spoke of how when she was escaping violence, other sex workers were who kept her safe. She spoke about state violence from police or while incarcerated. Her words were powerful. I hope the other attendees listened. (These are shared here as they are things she’s also spoken about elsewhere publicly.)

Cecilia had extensive nonprofit, policy, activism, and organizing experience. She was a powerhouse wealth of information, and a passionate human rights advocate. And because the anti-trafficking sector has historically made sex worker organizers the enemy (rather than valuing their lived experience), it lost out on her brilliance.

I think a lot about the leadership of those with lived experience in ending exploitation, and honestly, I think a lot more about “survivor leadership” than I do about “survivor leaders.” “Survivor leaders” tend to be a vetted and curated subset of leaders with lived experience who largely agree with the norms of the anti-trafficking sector. It’s a trafficking-specific word for a certain kind of survivor and isn’t inclusive of all kinds of survivors or all the kinds of work they do. “Survivor leadership” is broader and bigger, unwieldy enough to include those leaders who support sex worker rights, harm reduction, non-carceral approaches, and genuine community-based organizing that falls entirely outside state-funded, 501(c)3 programming. “Survivor leadership” includes those activities that anti-trafficking advocates who remain siloed within this sector never see. It includes those who never publicly disclose, but whose impact can never be underestimated.

Cecilia’s leadership was all of those things – impactful, grassroots, genuine, unapologetic, and transformative for everyone whose path crossed hers. Her life was a model for taking the wounds of exclusion and turning them into ferocity. May she rest in peace and power. May we all be moved by her example and blessed by her memory.

Read Cecilia’s professional bio here:https://www.transequityconsulting.com/blog/ceciliagentili

Learn more about her life in this 2020 talk with Carmen Vasquez (another powerhouse who I was lucky enough to know) about transgender resilience here: https://youtu.be/QN1gEIR8NS0?si=VKG0fKomQzoQApcE

Basking in the Collective Light of Leadership

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