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social sciences

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When Italy became unified in 1861, the penal code of the Kingdom of Sardinia, which criminalized homosexual acts between men but not women, was adopted nationally.

Article 425 of the code actually did not use the term "homosexual," but spoke of "libidinous acts against nature." Significantly, the law did not apply to the southern regions (from Naples to Sicily), which were once part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. This anomaly was attributed to "the peculiar behavior of those living in the south," an ambiguous phrase that implicitly acknowledged a difference in attitude toward homosexuality in the south and the north.

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This discrepancy that made homosexual acts legal in one part of the country and illegal in another part of the country was resolved in the first post-unification penal legislation, the Zanardelli Code of 1889, which decriminalized homosexual acts between consenting adults throughout the entire Kingdom of Italy.

This choice reflected both the continuing influence of the Napoleonic Code and also the belief that the Church, not the state, should take the lead as moral arbiter as far as sexual mores are concerned.

In addition, many legislators thought it better to ignore homosexuality altogether because mentioning the punishment for this "vice" would have been a form of publicity for it. They regarded homosexuality as the sin not to be mentioned among Christians.

For the liberal politicians of the Kingdom of Italy, as well as for the Fascist regime that followed, homosexuality simply did not exist. This policy inaugurated an attitude of repressive tolerance that did not persecute homosexuals as long as they kept silent about their orientation and did not make it apparent, but that also withheld any recognition of homosexuality as a legitimate sexuality.

The shroud of silence that enveloped homosexuality was instrumental in rendering heterosexuality the only possible sexuality for Italians, a long-lasting conviction that the gay liberation movement of the second part of the twentieth century had great difficulty in challenging.

Still, the lack of laws against same-sex acts encouraged queer visitors from Northern Europe, especially Germany and Great Britain, where laws against homosexual acts were harsh. Destinations such as Capri and Taormina became well-known in homosexual circles throughout Europe, and a tradition of sexual tourism developed, in which wealthy northerners traveled to relatively impoverished areas of Italy in pursuit of sexual dalliances with young men.

Fascist Dictatorship

During the Fascist Dictatorship, 1925-1945, attempts were made to criminalize homosexual acts. In one of the early versions of the Fascist penal legislation, the Rocco Code, promulgated in 1930, "libidinous acts" between people of the same sex were to be punished, "if they cause a scandal," by six months to three years in jail. However, the proposal encountered strong opposition and was not included in the final version of the code since, allegedly, so few Italians practiced homosexuality that their persecution was superfluous.

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, as illustrated in Ettore Scola's unforgettable film A Special Day (1977).

After the collapse of the Fascist dictatorship, during the Italian Social Republic of 1943-1945, there was an attempt to criminalize homosexuality, but this initiative also failed.

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