Gay History 101: October 14, 2015

The femmenielli are traditionally considered to bring luck.

Homosexuality in Neapolitan culture is very fluid and polimorph. Femminielli or femmenielli (singular femminiello, cf. Standard Italian  femmina, "a female," -ello, masculine diminutive suffix) is a term used to refer to a population of homosexual males with markedly feminine gender expression in traditional Neapolitan culture.

It may be hard to define this term within modern Western notions of "gay men" versus "trans women" since both these categories overlap to a degree in the case of femminielli. It has been noted that this term is not derogatory and does not carry stigma, instead femminielli are traditionally believed to bring luck.

It is reductive to insert the Neapolitan Femminiello within the macro-category of transgender or transsexual, usually adopted in Anglo-Saxon and North American contexts. The femminiello, instead, could be considered as a peculiar gender expression, despite a widespread sexual binarism. The cultural roots of this phenomena are embedded in confer to the femminiello a cultural and even socially legitimized status. For the historical and symbolic coordinates of Naples, the identity construct of the femminiello is not superimposable to more common European and euro-centric transgender clusters. However others maintain that i femminielli are decidedly male despite their female gender role, saying that "they are male; they know it and everyone else knows it."

A ceremony called the matrimonio dei femminielli takes place in Torre Annunziata on Easter Monday, a parade of femminielli dressed in wedding gowns and accompanied by a "husband" travel through the streets in horse-drawn carriages.

Achille della Ragione (1947), a Neapolitan scholar, has written: In the variegated world of homosexuality, still ill defined both scientifically and culturally, the position of the Neapolitan femminello is a privileged one...they live mostly in the poor quarters in a welcoming atmosphere, surrounded by good-natured consensus. Born in a squalid slum, bereft of air and light, into families where promiscuity is the rule and all the children generally sleep in one bed...he is usually the youngest male child, 'mother's little darling,' and tends to imitate his mother's feminine sweetness...It is unusual for a poor family to view the femminiello as a family disgrace in any sense of the word; he is useful, he does chores, runs errands and watches the kids...and a mother would have no second thoughts about asking a femminiello to babysit.


Writers on this subject also cite as evidence of the femminiello's acceptance in the Neapolitan sub-culture the work of Abele De Blasio (1858-1945), a Neapolitan anthropologist whose Usi e costumi dei camorristi [Uses and Customs of the Camorra, or the Neapolitan Mafia] from 1897 reports on the cases of 'O spusarizio masculino, popularly sanctioned marriages among femminielli in the poorer quarters of Naples (particularly, the Spanish Quarter).

In late 2000s many sex scandals have rocked Italy involving high profile politicians (e.g., former President of Lazio, Piero Marrazzo) and transsexual sex workers often of Latin American descent, who are usually referred to as transessuali (shortened to trans) in Italian media. In 2009 the term femminiello gained some notoriety in Italian media after a Naples native femminiell, Camorra mobster Ketty Gabriele (legal name Ugo Gabriele), was arrested. Gabriele had engaged in prostitution prior to becoming a capo. Gabriele has been referred to both as a femminiello and transessuale or trans  in Italian media.

The links to ancient Greek mythology are numerous: for example, Hermaphroditus, who possessed the beauty of the mother, Aphrodite, and the strength of the father, Hermes; or Tiresias, the blind prophet of Thebes, famous for being transformed into a woman for seven years. Both of these personages and, indeed, others in many cultures in the world, are presumed to possess something that others do not: the wise equilibrium that comes from knowing both worlds, masculine and feminine.

Something akin to the Two-Spirits of the American Indian culture.


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