Seventy-five years ago in Fascist Italy, a group of gay men were labelled “degenerate”, expelled from their homes and interned on an island. They were held under a prison regime – but some found life in the country’s first openly gay community a liberating experience.
Every summer, tourists are drawn to the beauty of a tiny string of rocky islands in the Adriatic.
But just recently a group of visitors came to the Tremiti archipelago not so much to enjoy the peace and calm of this remote place as to remember.
These were gay, lesbian and transgender rights activists.
They had come to hold a small ceremony during which they would mark a shameful episode that unfolded in the islands more than 70 years ago.
Back in the late 1930s the archipelago played a part in the effort by Benito Mussolini’s Fascists to suppress homosexuality.
Gay men undermined the image that the dictator wanted to project of Italian manhood.
“Fascism is a virile regime. So the Italians are strong, masculine, and it’s impossible that homosexuality can exist in a Fascist regime,” says professor of history at the University of Bergamo, Lorenzo Benadusi.
So the strategy was to cover up the issue as much as possible.
“This evil needs to be attacked and burned at its core”
Mayor of Catania, in Sicily
No discriminatory laws were passed. But a climate was created in which open manifestations of homosexuality could be vigorously suppressed.
And one particular police prefect in the Sicilian city of Catania took full advantage of the official mood.
“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,” he wrote.
He said he was determined 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”.
He went on: “This evil needs to be attacked and burned at its core.”
So in 1938 around 45 men believed to be homosexuals in Catania were rounded up and consigned to internal exile.
They eventually found themselves about 600km away on the island of San Domino, in the Tremitis.
The whole episode has been largely forgotten.
It’s thought that nobody who endured this punishment is still alive today, and there are few detailed accounts of what went on there.
But in their book, The Island and the City, researchers Gianfranco Goretti and Tommaso Giartosi talk of dozens of men, most but not all from Catania, enduring harsh conditions on San Domino.
They would arrive handcuffed, and then 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.”
Another islander, Attilio Carducci, 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,” he says.
“My father always spoke well of them. He never had anything bad to say about them – and he was the local Fascist representative.”
The prisoners knew the exposure of their homosexuality would have caused shame and anguish for their families back home in deeply conservative towns and villages.
Some of that mood is captured in a letter from the son of a Sicilian peasant, who had been training to be a priest when he was rounded up.
Begging the judicial authorities to let him go home he wrote: “Imagine, Your Honour, the grief of my beloved father. What a dishonour for him!
“Internal exile for five years.
“It makes me mad just to think about it.”
The prisoner, identified only as Orazio L, pleaded for a chance to be allowed to leave the island and “serve the Fatherland” in the army.
“To become a soldier, and then return to the seminary to live in retirement, is the only way in which I could repair the scandal and dishonour to my family,” he wrote.
But 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.
“We did theatre, and we could dress as women there and no-one would say anything”
Giuseppe B, San Domino inmate
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.
What this meant to the exiles was explained in a rare 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 if you were a femminella [a slang Italian word for a gay man] you couldn’t even leave your home, or make yourself noticed – the police would arrest you,” he said of his home town near Naples.
“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.”
And he said that of course, there was romance, and even fights over lovers.
Some prisoners wept, Giuseppe said, 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 a kind of house arrest in the places where they came from.
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.
It is deeply ironic that in the Italy of that time, they could find a degree of freedom only on a prison island.
The party of gay and lesbian rights activists who gathered on the archipelago the other day put down a plaque in memory of the exiles.
It will be a permanent reminder of Mussolini’s persecution of homosexuals.
“This is necessary, because nobody speaks of what happened in those years,” said one of the activists, Ivan Scalfarotto, a Member of Parliament.
And the suffering hasn’t ended for Italy’s gay community, he says. They are no longer shackled and shipped off to islands – but even now they are not regarded as “class A” citizens.
There is still no real social stigma attached to homophobia in Italy, Scalfarotto says, and the state doesn’t extend legal rights of any kind to gay or lesbian couples.
Their struggle for equality goes on.
By Alan Johnston
Source – BBC News