40 Change Makers: Cecilia Gentili

This interview has been shortened and condensed for clarity.

For a decade, Cecilia Gentili has been an ongoing collaborator and community partner with AVP. Working at the intersections of sex work, transgender women’s rights, and incarceration issues, Cecilia Gentili has helped shape critical forums with AVP. Cecilia is well known for advocating for safe and equitable access to housing, employment, and public resources for the trans and gender non conforming (TGNC) community.

Reflecting on the last ten years, Cecilia shares how her work has been impacted by AVP’s hotline and community organizing.

How did you first get involved with The Anti-Violence Project (AVP)?

I first learned of The Anti-Violence Project when I was doing an internship at The LGBT Center for their Gender Identity Project in 2010. I had many things to do, like facilitate groups, do outreach, and work on events. One of my first projects there as an intern was to help organize the first Trans Day of Remembrance event for The Center. One of the people that I was encouraged to invite was someone from AVP. That’s how I came to know about AVP, and I went to the website, and I learned, and then I met with the staffer. I learned a lot about AVP and I thought that was an amazing resource for everybody, but specifically, for the trans community.

While I was working at The Center, I used to facilitate groups. In one of those groups, I met LaLa Zanell when she had just started volunteering at AVP. Then she got hired as an organizer in the Community Organizing and Public Advocacy department, and that made me get closer to AVP. It was very important for me to know that AVP was hiring trans people. So that’s how I got more familiar with the work.

What are the ways you’ve engaged AVP throughout the years?

With Lala, we were growing together as leaders in the community. So we were doing a lot of the stuff together, some organizing, some rapid response to quick events, and rallies, and things like that. As the time went by, I collaborated with AVP in this massive trans and gender nonconforming project. In 2015, we coordinated town halls all over New York, in the five boroughs, as a group of trans people, within organizations.

Then, when I began working at GMHC as the Managing Director of Policy and Public Affairs, I took a participant from AVP’s Trans and Gender Nonconforming Leadership Academy as an intern from that program, Briana Silberg, who ended up being hired at AVP as an organizer after being my intern at GMHC. The work kind of grew in a fantastic way. I was able to be engaged with the work at AVP in different capacities during the years, and in a more active way as the time went by.

How has your engagement with AVP impacted you personally or in your work?

When I was working as a service provider, it was really important for me to have AVP services as part of my linkage to my clients’ care. Working with AVP would always come from a very sad or terrible story because I would be referring clients who were victims of violence.

Then, it would become a more compassionate feeling when my clients would get the services that they needed at AVP, addressing the intimate partner violence, or whatever they were experiencing. Then, when I went to work at GMHC, in a more policy-centered work, I was able to know and be in touch with the amazing work that AVP does in policy. That’s how we started DecrimNY, the sex work coalition. I feel like I’ve been part of many aspects of the work that AVP does. It was always a great experience to have been able to work with them.

What is your most memorable experience with AVP?

I never was in a position to need to seek services from AVP, but I have experienced the work that they do through my clients. I can’t pinpoint specific things, but for example when one of my clients got a legal status after sending them to AVP’s Legal Department. That’s an amazing feeling and a great experience.

I think the most important thing was experiencing change in terms of empowerment of these clients that were victims of intimate partner violence. After sending clients to AVP, you could clearly see how they felt more empowered, in their value, their lives and their well-being in a much more favored way. Just seeing the change, seeing how accessing services that are crafted specifically for people going through violence, it was something that it was so wonderful to see and experience through my clients.

40 Change Makers: Thomas von Foerster

This interview has been shortened and condensed for clarity. Some of the content may be triggering for survivors.

In 1978, Thomas von Foerster moved to New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood as a 37-year-old gay man in search of others like him. He soon found community in the Chelsea Gay Assocation (CGA), a social group for gay men. His involvement in the association quickly grew, and he became treasurer as well as the editor of the monthly newsletter with over 1000 members.

When queer men began to face violent attacks coming to and from the gay bars on the westside of Manhattan, some in the CGA rallied to support the survivors. As the editor of the newsletter and keeper of the checkbook, Thomas found himself by happenstance in a unique position to promote the beginnings of what would become the Anti-Violence Project (AVP).

What led to the formation of AVP and how were you involved?

Back in the early eighties, there was a community group called the Chelsea Gay Assocation started by Arthur Goodman and a couple of his friends. When I moved to New York in ‘78, they were just getting started and I joined up because I lived in Chelsea at the time. In the earlier eighties, the gay bars by the water front, The Eagle, The Spike, The Cock — serious leather bars were down there. To get there from the rest of the city you had to walk past the big housing projects that were along the river there. There were several really nasty attacks. When a couple of people in the CGA went to talk to the cops about these attacks, the cops claimed they had never heard about them. The CGA started helping people go to the cops, file complaints, and then follow up to make sure the complaints weren’t just filed away in the wastebasket.  They asked if they could use the answering service from the CGA as a hotline for people who were attacked.

The two people who were active in starting AVP were Jay Watkins and Russel Nutter. They took it very seriously and really organized to make sure that people that got attacked knew that there was this hotline, and they started asking for help, for instance, organizing self defense classes in some of the bars there.

That was the sort of thing that led to starting the hotline. Then in the course of things, the hotline became quite important. We started handing out flyers at the bars and everything else. Assemblyman Richard Gottfried heard about AVP and realized this would be a good thing to support to improve his relations with the gay community in Chelsea. He proposed donating some state funds to the organization to help it get started. So this pure volunteer thing suddenly had to become a serious organization.

What were the differences between CGA and the newly formed AVP? What was the impact on the community?

CGA was a purely social group whereas AVP was always an advocacy group. There were lots of people in the CGA who really resented AVP taking over the focus and requesting money from us all the time because they thought we should use it for more games and things. The CGA was a very different kind of group. Lots of people met dates and friends through the CGA.

There were the same sort of divisions there are today. There were the Republican gays who just wanted to blend in and thought everything would be perfect if everybody was just like them and didn’t make waves anymore, and tried to make sure that nobody noticed that they were living with another man. And then there were the flamboyant queens who just can’t hide it who are the ones that actually get attacked. There has always been a tension between those opposite ends, and of course lots of people in between. All of the sort of safe people were saying ‘well if they just didn’t dress that way, or walk that way, nobody would attack them so why are they doing that!’ It’s still there.

Were you aware of other anti-violence movement work happening at the time?

I learned several years after the New York AVP started that a couple of similar groups existed elsewhere, for instance in San Francisco. I met and briefly dated a guy from San Francisco who had been involved with the efforts there, I made sure that people knew about the connection. By that point the New York AVP was already aware of other groups. They sort of took a leadership role in connecting everybody together.

What is something about AVP’s founding that most people don’t know?

The attack that actually precipitated, that was really serious, that Jay and Russell became involved with, was the Episcopalian minister in charge of the Holy Apostles Church. He was heading to The Eagle or something and got really seriously beaten. Jay and Russell were friends of his. When the cops did not record the beating, they got really upset and that’s what really prompted them to make sure that these things get recorded.

What are some ways you’ve seen AVP transform and evolve over the last forty years?

There were always people with slightly different focuses. For instance, very early on Jay and Russel met a guy that had been going to the courts when the gay bashing cases were being heard and trying to by his presence just simply point out that the gay panic defense was not really valid. Even though lots of people at that point were getting off for beating or even killing people.

So they helped recruit more people for his court watching project. That was an early project and I don’t think that exists anymore but that was sort of one of the sidelines to the Anti-Violence idea that was very useful for a time.

I think for the defendants and everybody, it’s very useful to have support in the courtroom.

What would you like to see AVP accomplish in the next forty years?

I’d like to see AVP become unnecessary. That means that people stop directing violence against minorities of any kind including queer and trans people and all the people that are constantly being attacked, which the current administration in Washington is encouraging. It would be nice if we didn’t have to fight that sort of thing. I think that’s going to be an effort of a lot more than forty years but I think everything one can do to make AVP unnecessary would be great.