Unlike Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy had no law criminalizing homosexual activity. Why not? Well, it was thought that such a provision would publicize homosexuality. Like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Benito Mussolini declared Italy too masculine for homosexuality to exist. Nevertheless, despite its non-existence, a group of 45 thought to be homosexual men were labelled "degenerate", expelled from their homes and interned on the island of San Domino, in the Tremitis.
"Unwittingly, the Fascists had created a corner of Italy where you were expected to be openly gay." -- Alan Johnson, BBC NewsNeedless to say, despite the lack of sanctions, the shame connected to homosexuality at the time--that has not been totally eradicated--made life for homosexuals in Italy extraordinarily unpleasant. So, in spite of the prison island and their shackled exile status, for the first time in their lives, these men could be themselves
"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.
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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.
The Island and the City: Homosexuals in Exile in Italy in Fascist , by Gianfranco Goretti and Tommaso Giartosi