Sunday, 2 February 2020

Light A Candle For The Femminielli

Today is Candlemas. It’s the official last day of the Christian Christmas (not to be confused with the 12 Days of Christmas or Epiphany). Around the world, especially in Catholic churches, there are special services and processions.

Candlemas takes its name from the blessing and lighting church candles on this day. It also has several other names – the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, and the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. Both of these names have religious significance which need not concern us today, as it’s the Candlemas procession which is of interest.

In the rural Italian village of Ospedaletto d’Alpinolo, 60 kilometers from Naples, there’s an age-old annual celebration of Candlemas. Every year on February 2nd the people of Ospedaletto go up the nearby mountain of Montevergine to the Benedictine abbey which sits high up at 1,480 meters above sea level. This is the same abbey who gave a controversial Nativity scene, or presepio, to the Vatican in 2017 which was featured in my Advent series in December. Like Candlemas itself, the celebrations at Montevergine has another name - the Juta dei Femminielli, the Ascent of the Femminielli.

The Juta is a procession created as an act of worship to honour the Madonna of Montevergine. The abbey contains a famous icon of the Virgin Mary, one of the Black Madonnas, so called because the pigments have darkened over the centuries. Among the many thousands of pilgrims to the shrine is a community after whom the Juta dei Femminielli is named.

The femminielli are an Italian third gender community specific to the Naples area that has survived the enforced binary gender stereotypes of the medieval period. The community has enjoyed a level of tolerance and acceptance that is still often denied to others. Femminielli are male-born individuals who exhibit or possess a feminine identity and may often cross-dress. They do not recognise themselves as gay or transgender.

The abbey at Montevergine is said to have been built in 1120 on the site of an ancient temple to the goddess Cybele. Italy has many such temples and we’ll encounter another one in my “80 More Gays” series next month. What these temples of Cybele had in common was that their priestesses were either transgender or eunuch.

It would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to prove any continuity from those ancient priestesses to the modern femminielli. When the abbey was founded the temple ruins had long been abandoned and cult of Cybele long forgotten. There are no contemporary texts in Italy which mention them or the femminielli, assuming people had access to any ancient text that existed. The first mention of the femminielli comes in the 16th century. There’s no evidence anyone knew of the ancient third gender priestesses before then – they were only recognised as such in recent decades when our concept of gender diversity emerged. Today we know about Cybele’s priestesses, and we know about the modern femminielli. We fill in the centuries between them ourselves on the irrational assumption that the two must be connected. Other sites of ancient Cybele temples have no similar third gender community in modern times.

The Juta dei Femminielli has its origin in a legend dated 1256. It tells of a couple of two men who were secretly in love. At Candlemas they joined the annual procession up to the abbey. In a quiet place they held hands and kissed, but they were seen. A crowd of angry villagers attacked the couple, stripping them, beating them, and dragging them out into the mountain woods. They tied the naked couple to a tree and left them there to die from hypothermia or to be eaten by wolves.

In the morning the couple awoke to find their wounds were healed, their bonds were free and their bodies warm. A later variation of the legend days they celebrated in the only way they could – they had sex.

The couple returned to Ospedaletto d’Alpinolo where the people were astonished to see them alive. The villagers began to believe that the Madonna of Montevergine, at whose shrine in the abbey they had all visited the day before, had miraculously saved them. They took it as a sign that gay love should be accepted, and ever since that day the Candlemas procession has also been a celebration of gay love.

This may be just a myth, who knows? Exactly when the femminielli became associated with the procession isn’t known either, nor is the first occasion when it became known as the Juta dei Femminielli.

The modern lgbt community around Naples has adopted the Madonna of Montevergine as their patron saint and the abbey welcomes their participation in the annual procession and acts of worship at her shrine - except in 2002. In 2002 the abbot threw a group of lgbt pilgrims out of the shrine because he didn’t think their noisy presence, banging drums and clicking castanets in the traditional manner, was appropriate for a holy shrine. The local community was outraged, and so was the Naples lgbt community. Two weeks later, on Candlemas, they flocked up to the abbey to join the Candlemas procession. A similar incident occurred in 2010.

The 2002 incident provoked a well-known Italian transgender actor, Vladimir Luxuria, to join the procession. Needless to day, her presence caused something of a media event. After she became the first transgender member of a European parliament in 2006 the media attention rocketed. Today the Italian media features the Juta dei Femminielli every year.

Last year the municipal council of Ospedaletto d’Alpinolo granted Vladimir Luxuria honorary citizenship in recognition of her services to the lgbt community.

In recent years the Juta dei Femminielli has become a feature of the Neapolitan lgbt community’s annual celebrations of Candlemas. They receive a welcome from the local community and the abbey itself. Below is the poster for their 2015 celebrations.

There are many videos of the Juta dei Femminielli on YouTube. It may not be what you expect, as there is no organised parade like you see in a modern Pride march. In its own way the Juta dei Femminielli is as much a celebration of openness and acceptance as any Pride march. The main reason may be religious rather than secular but it is, perhaps, the worlds longest continuously held parade in the lgbt community.

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