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Recently a group of glbtq activists gathered on the island of San Domino in the Tremiti Archipelago in the Adriatic to honor the memory of gay men who were interned by the Fascist regime as "degenerates." Some 45 men, mostly Sicilians, were rounded up in Catania and consigned to "internal exile" on San Domino in the Tremitis in 1938 and held under prison conditions until the outbreak of World War II.
The internment of gay men on San Domino had been largely forgotten until it was reported by Gianfranco Goretti and Tommaso Giartosi in their 2006 book, The Island and the City. The internees endured harsh conditions on San Domino. "They would arrive handcuffed, and then be housed in large, spartan dormitories with no electricity or running water."
The story of the "internal exile" of gay men during the Fascist period is also told in Ettore Scola's memorable 1977 film Una giornata particolare (A Special Day), starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, which concerns a woman who befriends her homosexual neighbor on the eve of Hitler's 1938 visit to Mussolini. It is also the subject of the 2008 graphic novel In Italia sono tutti maschi (In Italy They Are All Males), written by Luca de Santis and illustrated by Sara Colaone.
As Luca Prono explains in his glbtq.com entry on Italy, during the Fascist Dictatorship (1925-1945), homosexuality was not actually illegal. An early attempt to criminalize homosexual behavior by the Fascist government encountered strong opposition since, allegedly, so few Italians practiced homosexuality that their persecution was superfluous.
As Prono writes, "The typically Italian attitude of remaining silent about same-sex desire for fear of promoting it won once again over the impulse to punish it. Criminalizing homosexuality would have required the regime to admit its existence, thus damaging the cult of masculinity that constituted one of its ideological foundations.
The Fascist regime delegated the repression of visible "deviants" to the administrative discretion of local police forces who were authorized to admonish them and, if that proved insufficient, to condemn them to house arrest or internal exile.
These measures were more strictly and sometimes brutally enforced after the approval of the Race Laws in 1938, and many homosexuals suffered from them in the final years of Mussolini's reign.
Alan Johnson reports on the San Domino internment camp for BBC News.
He alleges, not altogether convincingly to me, that some of the few accounts from survivors indicate that life was not all bad at San Domino and that the day-to-day prison regime was comparatively relaxed.
Johnson writes, "Unwittingly, the Fascists had created a corner of Italy where you were expected to be openly gay."
"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."
He cites an interview with a San Domino veteran, named only as Giuseppe B, published many years ago in the gay magazine, Babilonia, who said that in a way the men were better off on the island.
"In those days," Giuseppe recalled, "if you were a femmenella [a slang Italian word 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."
While I do not doubt that the prisoners did their best to make life as pleasant as possible under horrible conditions, I think it irresponsible of Johnson to paint life in an internment camp as idyllic.
Among the participants in the plaque-laying ceremony at San Domino was Ivan Scalfarotto, an openly gay Member of Parliament, who is the author of a proposed bill to prohibit hate speech and combat homophobia.