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Seventy-five years ago in Fascist Italy, a group of gay men were labelled “degenerate”, expelled from their homes and interned on The Tremiti islands, off Italy’s coast. The men were held under a prison regime.
In 1938 around 45 men believed to be homosexuals in Catania were rounded up and consigned to internal exile, and found themselves on the island of San Domino, in the Tremitis. It’s thought that nobody who endured this punishment is still alive today, and there are few detailed accounts of what went on there.
For 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.
The locals were aware. “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. My father always spoke well of them. He never had anything bad to say about them – and he was the local Fascist representative.”
One of the gay men imprisoned was the son of a Sicilian peasant, who had been training to be a priest when he was rounded up. He wrote to the judicial authorities begging them to let him go home. “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.”
In a rare interview with an inmate of San Domino named only as Giuseppe B, a native of Naples, which was published many years ago in the gay magazine, Babilonia, Giuseppe B said that in a way the men were better off on the island. “In those days if you were 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 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 party of gay and lesbian rights activists gathered on the archipelago recently to put down a plaque in memory of the exiles, 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.
Mussolini made himself dictator of Italy in 1925. He was overthrown in 1943 and was shot on 28 April 1945.