“I can’t take it anymore! Oh Madonna, I can’t take it anymore!” screams a person lying in bed, rolling back and forth, partially covered by a blanket. Surrounding bystanders—about half a dozen of them—are laughing, yelping and swearing in Neapolitan. “Chianu Chiano! Take it easy!”

The atmosphere is chaotic and friendly. One of the observers moves to the headboard and caresses the person’s head. On the other end of the bed, another lifts the blanket and fumbles about between their legs. There’s crying—and more screaming—until a baby doll appears, a huge plastic penis attached to its stomach. The ordeal now over, the doll is paraded around as the room erupts into cheers.

Loredana Rossi, 60, pauses the video and puts down her phone on the corner of the table. “And that,” she says with a proud smile, “is the figliata.”

An ancient fertility ceremony performed by Naples’ historic third-gender community—referred to locally as femminielli, a diminutive and masculine form of the word “femmina” or woman—the figliata, a mock-childbirth meant to bring fortune and fertility to its audience—is one of several traditions that Loredana, their matriarch, helps to keep alive.

Although Italy still lags behind many of its neighbours when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights, pockets of the southern region of Campania have been havens for this community for hundreds of years.

The femminielli do not fit into a single box of gender identity or expression. Historically, the term referred to men who had feminine attributes and straddled the line between the masculine and feminine. Today, the community is largely a mixture of transgender women, nonbinary people and some gay men.

Before the Second World War, the femminielli’s gender ambiguity fostered the belief that they held unique spiritual powers. “Because they are in the middle, they were considered neither male nor female,” Carolina Vesce, an anthropologist who studies femminielli culture, explains. “They were considered a channel of communication to God.”

This proximity to God gave the third-gender community an important place in Neapolitan folklore, which is characterised by superstition and a firm belief in lucky charms. Some of the mainstream traditions they participated in—like the tombola scostumata, or “naughty tombola,” a bingo-like game in which the numbers are associated with Neapolitan swear words—gave people the chance to benefit from the femminielli’s perceived good fortune.

“The femminielli have always been close to the people,” Loredana explains. “During the Second World War, men went to battle and women had to step in and fill the jobs that were usually done by men. The femminielli, in turn, took over the work usually associated with women: taking care of the children, cleaning the house, cooking and sending the kids to school.”

The tradition of the femminielli in Neapolitan society, however, is much older than the Second World War. Vesce points to the 16th-century book De humana physiognomonia, by the scholar and playwright Giovanni Battista Della Porta, as the first description of a femminiello in literature. The author described people he identifies as men, with nearly clean-shaven faces, soft voices and delicate features, and declared they were more feminine than the women around them. Della Porta added that these effeminate figures would also refer to themselves in the feminine form.

Two centuries later, in the mid-1700s, the Neapolitan artist Giuseppe Bonito painted an image of a femminiello laughing and getting dressed in women’s clothes, representing and therefore legitimising a community that had already been present in Naples for hundreds of years.

But despite playing such an important role in Neapolitan culture and history, members of this third-gender community have been victims of violence and discrimination that continues to this day.

Up until recently, employment opportunities for femminielli were limited. They were confined to work that was either hidden or served to entertain fellow Neapolitans. Some of the few jobs available to them were house cleaning, entertainment in restaurants or during traditional events and, most commonly, sex work.

“For the femminielli of my generation, the story was the same for everyone,” Loredana explains. “In order to live, to eat, to pay my rent, I was forced to sell myself. Here in Naples, 90% of the femminielli who are working the streets are forced to be in that situation. They have no alternative.”

And life on the streets comes with its own dangers. “This person has scars over here, that person has scars over there, another person has a scar on their head,” Loredana says. “Every one of us has a physical reminder of those times. Some people in Neapolitan society thought we were sinful. They thought we prostituted ourselves simply because we like cock, not knowing the reality behind it. The suffering, the loneliness…”

Already weighed down by balancing the public, fun and carefree persona with the often less glamorous reality of everyday life, there’s little emotional room left to deal with prejudice and queerphobia. “Personally, I don’t give a fuck about the bad things people think about me,” says Loredana. “Because at the end of the day, their husbands and their sons come to me. They give me money and they turn me into a real lady. This has always been my life philosophy.”

Traditions such as the figliata were passed on for generations, and brought members of the community together and helped them cope with the hardship. Another well-known tradition is the pilgrimage of the femminielli to the Montevergine Sanctuary in the mountains above Avellino, a town inland from Naples.

Stefania Zambrano, 36, remembers the first time she joined the procession when she was 18 years old. “It was all new,” Stefania explains. “I didn’t know about the Black Madonna, who is the mamma of the femminielli. I went out of curiosity. Learning about the history got me fascinated, and I became a real believer.”

According to local folklore, the Black Madonna saved two gay men who had been tied to a tree and left to die in 1256. Every year in February, all of the femminielli from Naples and the surrounding towns go on a pilgrimage to the Montevergine Sanctuary to pay their respects to the religious figure they see as their patron saint. Despite there being no evidence to back up the story, Carolina Vesce explains that it is nonetheless an important founding myth that gives the femminielli community meaning.

“Having an origin story, or a founding myth of the femminielli, is really important for them,” Vesce says. “It enables them to say: we were not born out of modern psychology, or when we started having plastic surgery or vaginoplasty. We may have taken up different forms, but we have always been here.”

At various points throughout the history of southern Italy, people of various sexualities and genders were legally granted some level of freedom of expression. In the century leading up to Italian Unification in 1861, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies—of which Naples was the capital—already decriminalised same-sex relations. According to Stefania’s experience, there are still minor, yet noticeable differences in how femminielli are perceived and treated across the country today.

“I’ve been all around Italy,” Stefania says. “I’ve been to Turin, Bologna, Venice. In Naples, you feel alive. In Naples, if you go down to the street, you might be flirted with. Someone might say: ‘Wow, look how beautiful you are!’ But in the north, people are indifferent. They don’t even acknowledge you. Not as a woman, not as a trans person, not as anything.”

Despite feeling more comfortable in Naples, Stefania knows not everybody in the city is welcoming. “The majority of the society accepts the femminielli as an object of fun. We bought our acceptance. We bought our good reputation.”

Many femminielli, kicked out of their homes by family members, found accommodation in the working-class Quartieri Spagnoli and Sanitá neighbourhoods—some of the only areas where people would let apartments to them. These became the places where the community thrived. But landlords knew that the femminielli were often involved in sex work, or have other types of income, and took advantage of that.

The community brought money to the poor neighbourhoods where they lived—they became a financial asset. And although the femminielli have been able to build somewhat of a safe space for themselves in small, isolated parts of Naples’ historic centre, they are not always safe outside of these areas.

Over the past year, Naples and its surrounding area have witnessed several violent attacks, not only against the femminielli, but also against the broader LGBTQ+ community. In February, two minors were filmed during an unprovoked beating of a trans woman on the streets. Last September, the brother of a woman who was dating a trans man was arrested for manslaughter. Wanting to intimidate them, he rammed his car into the scooter his sister and her boyfriend were riding, causing the death of his sister.

Recently, members of parliament have been pushing to introduce a new law that would protect the LGBTQ+ community and minorities across the country by making it a hate crime to attack someone based on their sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. The proposal, known as “Ddl Zan,” has already seen strong opposition by members of Italian right-wing parties like Lega, Fratelli d’Italia, as well as some members of Forza Italia. It is still under discussion at the time of writing.

Loredana says that the femminielli in Naples have always had to fight for their rights, so the battle to get this law passed is just the latest one. “We have fighting in our blood and we will continue to fight,” she says. “We’re not afraid of anything. Getting thrown out of families’ houses didn’t scare us, being outcast by society didn’t scare us. Nothing else could possibly scare us.”

The resilience of the community has been passed down the generations for centuries, and the struggle to keep its legacy and memory alive continues to this day. “As long as we speak about them,” Vesce says, “the femminielli will never die.”