The conditions on San Domino were squalid and prison-like. Yet it was also one of the only places gay men could be open about their sexualityby Finbarr Toesland / August 14, 2018 / Leave a comment
It’s well documented that the rise of Mussolini paved the way for abhorrent racial laws that heavily restricted the civil rights of Jewish Italians, alongside other ethnic minorities. But far less has been said about the devastating impactMussolini’s regime had on the country’s gay population.
Seen as antithetical to traditional masculine ideals, gay men in fascist Italy were targeted for discrimination and oppression—even though technically there had been no laws outlawing consensual same-sex relations.
Mussolini believed homosexuality to be an imported vice and didn’t want to officially recognise activity that he considered to be fundamentally incompatible with a strong fascist country.
“Fascism was especially keen on spreading the myth of a stereotypical Italian virility,” explains researcher Tommaso Giartosio, co-author of the 2006 book The City and the Island which explored the internal exile of gay men to the island of San Domino in fascist Italy.
“The repression of homosexuality did take place, but it was carried out by the police very discreetly, through a procedure that deliberately avoided trials or any other kind of publicity.”
“When several hundred gay men were arrested in about half of Italy’s provinces, the newspapers didn’t report it at all.”
Eventually, Mussolini’s purges of those who ‘endangered morals’—including homosexuals, anarchists, socialists and communists—lead to forced deportations to a number of Italian islands.
In 1938, the mayor of Catania exiled 45 gay men from the Sicilian town and sent them to the island of San Domino in the Adriatic Sea. Unlike other islands where gay people stayed alongside other political prisoners, San Domino only housed gay men.
But rather than breaking down after being excluded from wider society, prisoners created a collective where they could live openly among fellow LGBT people for the first time in their entire lives.
One of the former San Domino “inmates,” Giuseppe B, gave an interview to now-defunct Italian gay magazine, Babilonia, saying: “In those days if you were a femminella [Italian slang for a gay man] you couldn’t even leave your home, or make yourself noticed—the police would arrest you.”
“On the island, on the other hand, we would celebrate our Saint’s days or the arrival of someone new. We did theatre, and we could dress as women there and no-one would say anything.”
This was far from an island getaway, however, with residents living in prison-like conditions in squalid camps with no running water and under constant police supervision.
Despite the challenges they faced, Italian Democratic Party Member of Parliament Ivan Scalfarotto wasn’t at all surprised to find that many of the gay men had built a strong support system.
“Solidarity easily develops when people face challenging situations. I think that these people shared a very specific form of social stigma that possibly turned into a bond amongst them.”
“I believe being outed and forced to live in a small island probably broke the silence between these men and—even in the hardship—helped them to recognise themselves not as isolated individuals but somehow as members of a community,” he adds.
Much has improved for LGBT Italians since the dark days of fascism, but Mussolini’s heirs clearly show that there is still a long road ahead for gay right campaigners, with the granddaughter of the late Duce, Alessandra Mussolini, declaring on a talk show that she’s “Meglio fascista che frocio (Better a fascist than a faggot).”
In response to contemporary anti-gay sentiment, some activists are shedding light onto this atrocity to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
More than 70 years after the first gay men were sent to San Domino, this little-known island has achieved a higher profile in recent years, with a number of LGBT activists visiting in 2013 to acknowledge the dark moment in the country’s history.
The events on the island have inspired historical novels, comic books and even a musical.
Scalfarotto was part of the 2013 expedition and found it important to visit San Domino “mainly because the story of these people is not known at all and most people would probably not consider gay men among the victims of the fascist regime.”
“Visiting the island was not only a way to honour their memory but also to draw the public opinion attention to a part of the Italian history that most people ignore,” he adds.
Soon after World War II broke out in 1939, the camps were closed down, leaving the men to return to their homes under house arrest. Anti-gay discrimination persisted well after Mussolini’s fall and led to only a few of the previous prisoners speaking openly about the experience they had on San Domino, with a number of attempts being made in the following years to criminalise homosexuality.
There is little impetus in Italy to content with Mussolini’s shameful legacy. But unless his more insidious views are brought into public discourse, the lessons of the past may not be fully understood.
Even former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, has apparently furthered falsehoods about the fascist leader, being quoted in the Vote de Rimini newspaper saying: “Mussolini never killed anyone. Mussolini used to send people on vacation in internal exile.”