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 (see: Third gender.) It has been noted that this term is not derogatory and does not carry stigma, instead femminielli are traditionally believed to bring luck. Ironically Achille della Ragione suggests that recent surveys have shown that Neapolitans have a generally negative view of what he calls "the politically correct model of homosexuality of a hypocritical do-gooder society" (implying the mainstream Western gay culture), yet he contrasts femminielli as enjoying a favorable attitude from the part of Neapolitan society.
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 phenomenon 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.
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 femminiello 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.
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."
Achille della Ragione has written of social aspects of femminielli. "[The femminiello] is usually the youngest male child, 'mother's little darling,' (..) he is useful, he does chores, runs errands and watches the kids."
A certain incompatibility between the notions of femminiello and (often foreign-born) transsexuals can be observed, e.g., a news headline reading Rivolta ai quartieri Spagnoli: i femminielli cacciano le trans ("Revolt in the Quartieri Spagnoli: femminielli drive out the transsexuals.")
The constant references in many sources to the ancient rituals behind the presence of the femminiello in Naples require little comment. 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.
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.
The femminiello in Campania, enjoy a relatively privileged position thanks to their participation in some traditional events, such as Candelora al Santuario di Montevergine (Candlemas at the Sanctuary of Montevergine) in Avellino or the Tammurriata, a traditional dance performed at the feast of Madonna dell'Arco in Sant'Anastasia.
Generally femminielli are considered good luck. For this reason, it is popular in the neighborhoods for a femminiello to hold a newborn baby, or participate in games such as bingo. Above all the Tombola or Tombolata dei femminielli, this is a popular game performed every year on the 2nd of February, as the conclusive part of the Candlemas at the Sanctuary of Montevergine.
In a stage production called La Gatta Cenerentola (The Cat Cinderella), by Roberto De Simone, femmenielli play the roles of several important characters. Among the major scenes in this respect are the rosario dei femmenielli and il suicidio del femminiella.