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Mourning a Transgender Activist at a Cathedral That Once Drew Protests

The pews of St. Patrick’s Cathedral were packed on Thursday for an event with no likely precedent in Catholic history: the funeral of Cecilia Gentili, a transgender activist and actress, former sex worker and self-professed atheist whose memorial functioned as both a celebration of her life and an exuberant piece of political theater.

Over 1,000 mourners, several hundred of whom were transgender, arrived in daring outfits — glittery miniskirts and halter tops, fishnet stockings, sumptuous fur stoles and at least one boa sewed from $100 bills. Mass cards and a picture near the altar showed a haloed Ms. Gentili surrounded by the Spanish words for “transvestite,” “whore,” “blessed” and “mother” above the text of Psalm 25.

That St. Patrick’s Cathedral would host the funeral for a high-profile transgender activist, who was well known for her advocacy on behalf of sex workers, transgender people and people living with H.I.V., might come as a surprise to some.

Not much more than a generation ago, at the heights of the AIDS crisis, the cathedral was a flashpoint in conflicts between gay activists and the Catholic Church, whose opposition to homosexuality and condom use enraged the community. The towering neo-Gothic building became the site of headline-grabbing protests in which activists chained themselves to the pews and lay down in the aisles.

The church has softened its tone on those issues in recent years, and New York’s current cardinal, Timothy Dolan, has said the church should be more welcoming of gay people. Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, did not respond to questions about whether the church had been aware of Ms. Gentili’s background when it agreed to host her funeral.

On Wednesday, he said that “if a request comes in for a funeral from a Catholic, the cathedral does its best to accommodate.”

New York City is home to roughly a dozen gay-friendly Catholic parishes, but St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the seat of the archdiocese, is not one of them.

Ceyenne Doroshow, who organized the funeral, said friends of Ms. Gentili — who died on Feb. 6 at 52 — had wanted the service to be at St. Patrick’s because “it is an icon, just like her.” But she added that she had not mentioned that Ms. Gentili was transgender when planning with the church. “I kind of kept it under wraps,” she said.

Ms. Gentili’s death came at a politically fraught time for transgender people, as states across the country restrict access their access to health care and public accommodation. Religious groups have played an active role in those efforts, but at the same time Pope Francis has taken steps toward inclusivity, saying last year that transgender people can be baptized, serve as godparents and be witnesses at church weddings.

Mr. Zwilling said he did not know whether or not Ms. Gentili had attended Mass at the cathedral, or if any other transgender people had had their funerals there. But he said that “a funeral is one of the corporal works of mercy,” a part of Catholic teaching that the church has described as “a model for how we should treat all others, as if they were Christ in disguise.”

The priest’s remarks did not address the specifics of Ms. Gentili’s life. As the service began, the priest, the Rev. Edward Dougherty, said it was the largest crowd he had seen since Easter Sunday. That comment drew the first of several rounds of cheers, chants and standing ovations.

At one point, a friend of Ms. Gentili’s took the lectern to pray for access to gender-affirming health care. At another, a mourner upstaged a priest singing “Ave Maria,” changing the lyrics to “Ave Cecilia.” She then danced through the aisles, red scarves twirling around her.

Later in the day, several people who attended a Mass at the cathedral said they were pleased it had hosted Ms. Gentili’s funeral.

Carlos Nunez, 43, who lives in Manhattan and works in customer service, said he thought the funeral was proper.

“Why not?” he said, leaving the cathedral. “Everybody has the right to come to church. Everybody is a child of God.”

Michael Minogue, 67, said he had reconsidered some of his own views after a friend died of AIDS in the 1980s. He said it struck him as benevolent — on the part of the church and mourners alike — that Ms. Gentili had her funeral in the cathedral.

“It signifies a bit more tolerance on both sides,” he said.

Ms. Gentili was an atheist, but her one-woman Off Broadway show, “Red Ink,” explored her encounters with the divine in unexpected places. In an interview last fall, she said she had “never had opportunities to experience a faith that was fully embracing of me” as a transgender person but had recently begun attending services again at various churches.

The Rev. James Martin, a well-known Jesuit writer who advocates a more inclusive approach from the church, said it was “wonderful” that St. Patrick’s had agreed to hold Ms. Gentili’s funeral.

“To celebrate the funeral Mass of a transgender woman at St. Patrick’s is a powerful reminder, during Lent, that L.G.B.T.Q. people are as much a part of the church as anyone else,” he said. “I wonder if it would have happened a generation ago.”

At the time, the city’s AIDS crisis had plunged the church’s fraught relations with the city’s gay and transgender community to a new a low.

In the late ’80s, Cardinal John O’Connor, the leader of the archdiocese, barred a gay Catholic group from meeting at their longtime church and said AIDS was spread through “sexual aberrations or drug abuse.” He also said the advice to use condoms to stop the spread of the disease was based on “lies.”

In 1989, more than 4,000 people protested outside St. Patrick’s, and protesters chanted and chained themselves to the pews inside. The police arrested 111 people during the protest, which became a touchstone in the city’s gay history.

The organizers of Ms. Gentili’s funeral said they hoped it would go down as a similarly important moment for the community. And as pallbearers walked Ms. Gentili’s coffin back up the aisle at the end of the service, chants once again echoed through the nave of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

“Cecilia! Cecilia! Cecilia!”

Nate Schweber contributed reporting.

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