Though we all know about the German Concentration Camps of World War II, where Jews and homosexuals, and other so-called ‘degenerates’ were rounded up and kept, and often murdered, this is a story I’d never heard before, so before I start, let me give a hat-tip to Helen Lashbrook from across the pond for the link.
Just before the start of World War II, some seventy-five years ago, in Fascist Italy, a group of gay men were also given the ‘degenerate’ label, and were taken by force from their homes and imprisoned on an island off the coast. And even though this was a prison, many of these men found a new life, for a few years, in what was the country’s first openly gay community.
These days this group of tiny rock islands—San Domino in the Tremiti archipelago—is a bit of a tourist spot in the Adriatic, but recently, a group of visitors came, not to enjoy, not to sightsee, not to vacation, but to remember. These LGBT activists came to the island to hold a small ceremony marking that shameful episode that unfolded there more than 70 years ago.
Back in the 1930s, under Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime, where men were supposed to be virile and many and strong, gay men were routinely rounded up and taken away in an effort to suppress homosexuality. To be fair, no discriminatory laws were passed, but still, homosexuality was completely unacceptable, not tolerated, and, actually, removed from the country by force.
And one particular city, Catania, in Sicily, and its mayor, took full advantage of the official mood. The mayor was repulsed by the gay men on his beaches and in his town, and vowed to stop 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." To that end, in 1938, he had forty-five men, who were rumored to be homosexuals, rounded up and consigned to the island of San Domino, in the Tremitis.
This shameful episode in Italian history might have been forgotten because it’s thought that no one who endured this punishment is alive today, and there are few detailed accounts of what went on there, but researchers Gianfranco Goretti and Tommaso Giartosi have written a book about the men and their prison, The Island and the City, and now, decades later, this sad story of our history, our LGBT history, is being told.
Most, but not all, of the men came from Catania, and would arrive on San Domino in handcuffs, and then housed in large dormitories with no electricity or running water. They were allowed to freely move about during the day, but at night they returned to their rooms and lived in darkness. Carmen Santoro, who grew up on the island, remembers the bells ringing each evening at 8PM, when the men were no longer allowed outside.
"We were curious because they were called 'the girls'. 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."—Carmen Santoro
These men, these prisoners, knew that the exposure of their homosexuality had caused shame for their families back home in Sicily, but some accounts by former exiles also reveal that these men learned to adapt, and realized that for the first time in their lives, they lived in a place where they could be themselves. The day-to-day prison regime was comparatively relaxed and, albeit unwittingly, the Fascists had created a corner of Italy where gay men could be openly gay.
What this meant to the exiles was explained in a rare interview with a San Domino exile, known only as Giuseppe B—published 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 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."
Some prisoners actually wept, Giuseppe said, when the outbreak of World War II in 1939 led to the end of their exile on San Domino, and the men were returned to their homes, subjected to a kind of house arrest, while others were jailed along with political prisoners on other small islands.
But for that brief period of time, even while living in exile, this small group of men knew what it was like to have a different kind of freedom; to be themselves, without fear of repercussion; to live as gay men with no shame, and so today those LGBT activists have placed a plaque on the island in memory of the exiles and a reminder of Mussolini's persecution of homosexuals.
"This is necessary, because nobody speaks of what happened in those years."—Ivan Scalfarotto, an LGBT activist and Member of Parliament.
But the suffering of gay men and women, bisexuals, and transgendered, continues today, though they are no longer shackled and shipped off to islands. Italy doesn’t extend legal rights of any kind to gay or lesbian couples.
Their struggle, our struggle, for equality goes on.