Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, the 1930s and 40s, wanted the portrayal of men to be strong, virile and masculine. Similar to Hitler’s Nazi’s regime, the possibility that homosexuality existed was not entertained. However unlike Hitler and France’s Vichy, no discriminatory laws were passed but instead the strategy was to ‘cover up’ the issue as much as possible and a very hostile climate was created in which open displays of homosexual affections were not tolerated.
“We notice that many public dances, beaches and places in the mountains receive many of these sick men, and that youngsters from all social classes look for their company,” wrote one particular man, the Mayor of the Sicilian city of Catania, who took full advantage of this “official mood” of homophobia. He proclaimed “This evil needs to be attacked and burned at its core,” and vowed to halt this “spreading of degeneration” in his city “or at least contain such a sexual aberration that offends morality and that is disastrous to public health and the improvement of the race”.
As a result of his fervour, 45 men in Catania, who were believed to be homosexual, were rounded up and consigned to internal exile. In 1938, they were sent 600km away to the island of San Domino, in the Tremitis — today this string of rocky islands in the Adriatic is a tourist hotspot for sun seekers every summer.
The truth is, not much is known about this part of our history. It is thought that very few men who were sent to San Domino are still alive today. There is also the possibility that these outcasts carried on to live hidden lives after they were released from the island, once the war was over. The continued homophobia throughout Europe after World War II meant that most homosexuals did not live openly gay lives and therefore there are few detailed accounts about life on San Domino.
In fact, in a rare interview, published many years ago in the gay magazine, Babilonia, Giuseppe B, a native of Naples and an inmate on San Domino, said that in a way the men were better off on the island. “In those days if you were 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.”
Thanks to the painstaking research of Gianfranco Goretti and Tommaso Giartosi, wo gathered personal documents and conducted interviews with locals from San Domino, there is some account of the activities on the island. The result is a fascinating overview of the fascist persecution of homosexuals during the 30s and 40s, which they published in their book La città e l’isola (The City and the Island).
La città e l’isola recounts a world where gay men were taunted in daytime but at night sought out by men who did not consider themselves to be homosexual. It depicts a time of secret meetings on beaches, dance halls for men only, the rivalries, the dress codes, the fear, the love, the gimmicks to remain ‘disguised’, the strategies of families once gay men were ‘found out’, life in exile and the vain attempts to prove their innocence.
Goretti and Giartosi talked tell how the men arrive handcuffed on the island, and how they were be housed in large, Spartan dormitories with no electricity or running water. “We were curious because they were called ‘the girls’,” says Carmela Santoro, an islander who was just a child when the gay exiles began to arrive. “We would go and watch them get off the boat… all dressed up in the summer with white pants — with hats. And we would watch in awe — ‘Look at that one, how she moves!’ But we had no contact with them.” Attilio Carducci, another islander, remembers how a bell would ring out at 8pm every day, when the men were no longer allowed outside. “They would be locked inside the dormitories, and they were under the supervision of the police. My father always spoke well of them. He never had anything bad to say about them — and he was the local Fascist representative.”
A number of gay men were interned along with political prisoners on other small islands, such as Ustica and Lampedusa, but San Domino was the only one where all the exiles were gay. Some of the few accounts given by former exiles make clear that life was not all bad on San Domino. It seems that the day-to-day prison regime was comparatively relaxed… especially if one considers what happened to gay men in the Nazi concentration camps. For the first time in their lives, the men were in a place where they could be themselves — free of the stigma that normally surrounded them in devoutly Catholic 1930s Italy. And it seems that, unwittingly, the Fascists had created a corner of Italy where you were expected to be openly gay… perhaps even the world’s first exclusive gay community.
In his interview with Babilonia magazine, Giuseppe B tells how some prisoners wept, when the outbreak of World War II in 1939 led to the end of the internal exile regime on San Domino, and the men were returned to live under some kind of house arrest in the cities where they came from.
La città e l’isola, is only available in Italian, which a pity because this a very unique fragment of our history that is a testimony of our resilience — something the LGBT community is known for — in the face of adversity. Hopefully an English translation is in the works (not that I know), because it would be a shame if these accounts and fantastic stories do not reach a wider audience.