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…