Fascism and Homophobia: The San Domino Camp for Exiled Homosexuals

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San Donato’s Hidden History: The Exile of Homosexuals under Mussolini

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Between 1936 and 1940, during Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime, about 300 homosexual men were deported to the Tremiti Islands (Isole Tremiti), located in the Adriatic Sea. These individuals, derogatorily labeled as “femminielli”, “arrusi”, and “pederasti”, were exiled as part of the regime’s broader efforts to maintain a perceived moral and racial purity in Italian society. This internment marked the creation of what some consider the first organized homosexual community in the world, although under oppressive and punitive circumstances.

Related articles: Italianization Under Fascist Rule; Unsettling Posters of the Italian Fascist Propaganda

Homosexuality in Fascist Italy: Suppression and Ambiguity

During the Fascist regime in Italy, from 1922 to 1943, the treatment of homosexuality was marked by a complex interplay of societal prejudice, legal ambiguity, and selective repression. While homosexuality was considered a serious deviation from the normative sexual behaviors espoused by Fascist ideology, the approach to handling it was often contradictory, blending overt moralistic condemnation with a tacit tolerance that avoided bringing the issue into the public sphere.

In the early 20th century, discussions on pederasty—a term often used interchangeably with homosexuality—gained traction among Italian medical professionals and intellectuals. In the Enciclopedia Italiana of 1935, physician Giuseppe Mariani described pederasty as having “uncertain and variable meanings” encompassing various sexual behaviors, including pedophilia and male homosexual relations. The term pederasty, deriving from the Greek words for “child” (παῖς) and “lover” (ἐραστής), historically denoted relationships between men and adolescent boys, though its use in contemporary discourse had broadened.

Medical and psychological theories of the time sought to explain homosexual behaviors through pathological lenses. Paolo Mantegazza, a prominent physician, attributed the passive desire for anal penetration to a “nerve anomaly” in the genital tract. Meanwhile, Albert Moll, a German sexologist influential in Italian debates, linked homosexuality to early childhood experiences of masturbation. Julien Chevalier, another key figure, portrayed homosexuals as fundamentally different in their psychological makeup, arguing that their behaviors and thoughts deviated sharply from those of the heterosexual majority. This pathologization of homosexuality contributed to its stigmatization and framed it as an unnatural deviation.

Fascist Ideology and the Treatment of Homosexuality

The Fascist regime under Benito Mussolini promoted an image of the Italian male as virile, strong, and loyal to traditional family values. Homosexuality was viewed as a threat to this ideal, perceived as undermining the virility and morality essential to the Fascist vision of the nation. However, the regime’s practical approach to handling homosexuality was complex and often inconsistent.

Publicly, homosexuality was condemned as an “abnormal” and “unnatural” vice that could compromise the purity of the Italian race and moral fabric. Despite this harsh rhetoric, actual legal measures against homosexual acts were limited and ambiguously enforced. A proposed amendment to the Italian penal code in 1925, suggested by Justice Minister Alfredo Rocco, sought to criminalize same-sex acts if they caused public scandal. The proposal, however, was dropped in the final 1930 penal code. This omission reflected a strategic decision to downplay the existence of homosexuality in Italy, as acknowledging it might have implied that it was a significant social issue requiring legislative action.

Despite the lack of explicit legal prohibitions, homosexuals could still be targeted under broader laws aimed at maintaining public order and morality. The TULPS (Testo Unico Leggi di Pubblica Sicurezza, or Unified Text of Public Security Laws) allowed the police to use administrative measures to address behaviors deemed scandalous without the need for a formal trial. These measures included warnings, judicial admonitions, and exile to remote locations—a tactic often employed against those accused of homosexual conduct.

Through a network of informants and surveillance, the police kept tabs on individuals suspected of homosexual activities. Reports from various police headquarters were sent to the Central Political Archives (Casellario Politico Centrale), where data on political and social deviants were compiled. This system facilitated the identification and punishment of those considered a threat to public morality.

Calabria, 1955, foto di Caio M. Garrubba
Calabria, 1955, © Caio M. Garrubba

The Exile of Homosexuals

One of the most severe consequences for those caught in the Fascist regime’s crackdown on homosexuality was exile to isolated colonies. These were typically remote and harsh environments, such as mountainous regions or islands, where the exiled lived under strict surveillance and in conditions of significant hardship.

By 1942, the Ministry of the Interior had recorded 186 men exiled for pederasty across various colonies in Italy. The city of Catania became notorious for a significant crackdown, with many young men, derogatorily referred to by feminine nicknames like “Leonessa” and “Placidina,” being arrested and sent to the island of San Domino in the Tremiti Islands. These islands served as a place of isolation for both political and social exiles, where they were cut off from society and faced significant stigmatization and deprivation.

In the 1930s, San Domino Island became a place of forced labor for approximately two hundred homosexuals and criminals, who were required to work mainly in agriculture. During the latter part of the decade, a rural village was constructed to house the entire population of the Tremiti Archipelago. This development led to the relocation of most residents from San Nicola, the main island, to San Domino. Consequently, San Nicola became the new location for the prisoners transferred from San Domino. At first, political detainees on San Nicola were accommodated in old Bourbon barracks and specifically built pavilions. However, starting in 1937/1938, the purpose of these confinements shifted to primarily punitive measures against those considered disobedient and incorrigible. 

Of the roughly sixty homosexual men sent to San Domino, forty-five were from Catania.In early 1939, they were arrested and convicted following an intensive crackdown spearheaded by the city’s police chief, Alfonso Molina. There was no specific directive explaining this intensive investigation. Historian Gianfranco Goretti, co-author of La città e l’isola. Omosessuali al confino nell’Italia fascista (Donzelli Editore), suggests that the recent enactment of racial laws by Mussolini in 1938 and an unresolved murder case from 1936 involving some of the arrested men may have played roles. Molina found files with compromising and sometimes scandalous stories on his desk, which convinced him to act decisively.

In his official document justifying the internment, Molina wrote clearly: “The spread of degeneration in this city has caught our attention. I consider it essential, in the interest of public morality and the health of the race, to intervene energetically so that the evil is attacked and cauterized at its foci. In the silence of the law, the internment by the police assists in this.” Thus, the “arrusi” of Catania found themselves exiled to San Domino.

The exiles were brought to the island in chains but were later allowed some freedom of movement under the watchful eyes of guards who rotated from nearby San Nicola. Waking at dawn, they had to make do with the 5 lire per day provided by the state—an insufficient amount, considering that a kilogram of bread cost 2.40 lire at the time. Many managed by continuing their trades, such as cobbling or tailoring. Families would send care packages with food and clothing. Giuseppe B., an exile from Salerno, recalled in a 1987 interview: “We tried to carry on with our trades, cobblers, tailors, farmers, and so forth.” The day ended at 8 PM (or 9 PM in summer) when a bell signaled it was time to return to the dormitories under strict watch.

The only contact with the outside world was the nearby island of San Nicola, a fifteen-minute boat ride away, where political exiles and local inhabitants lived. According to writer Paolo Pedote, author of L’Isola dei papaveri (Area 51 Publishing), “The exiles from San Domino would go there to shop, always followed by guards. The locals did not treat them as criminals but watched them with curious amusement. Everyone knew that the ‘pederasts’ were on that island.”

Many young men viewed their internment as a deep shame and a disgrace to their families. One twenty-year-old wrote to the Ministry of the Interior: “Here, in this oppressive inertia, what good can I do? The longer I stay, the gloomier, sadder, and more apathetic I become. […] I desire release because I want to serve the country and erase the dishonor from my family’s name. And then return to the seminary to lead a secluded life; it is the only way to make amends for the scandal.”

San-Domino-Tremiti
San-Domino, Tremiti, source

Unexpected Freedom

Archival records and testimonies reveal that life on the island of San Domino, despite its hardships, was sometimes approached with a certain degree of lightheartedness. Exiles often tried to make the best of their forced stay by engaging in various activities to pass the time. They would clean the facility, shop at the island’s only grocery store, fetch water, and perform small tasks like sewing or resoling the shoes of the guards. This established a routine that helped alleviate the otherwise interminable days on the sparsely inhabited island. One former exile recounted, “We tried to live well, as best we could. It helped to pass the days. We laughed, put on plays, celebrated, and prepared welcome feasts for newcomers. We could dress as women without anyone saying anything.”

Life on San Domino was also marked by romantic relationships and occasional altercations. Giuseppe B. remembered that “there were even stabbings among the Sicilians, out of passion.” Some exiles resorted to prostitution to survive. Evenings often saw clandestine liaisons, with fishermen and some fascist guards and carabinieri seeking the company of the “femminielli.”

For many, the island paradoxically became a place where they could live openly. As Pedote explained, “This island became, paradoxically, the first place where homosexuals lived without hiding, and without the fear of having to run because of their nature.” When the facility was repurposed in June 1940, due to Italy’s entry into World War II, the homosexual exiles were sent back to their cities. Their only obligation was to report to the local police station every evening.

Former exile Giuseppe B. expressed a sense of nostalgia and reluctance about leaving San Domino. He said, “In the end, it was better there than here. In my time, if you were a ‘femmenella,’ you couldn’t even leave the house, you couldn’t be noticed, or else you’d be arrested. When we left the Tremiti, there were those who cried, who didn’t want to leave the island.” Returning to the mainland meant resuming the struggle for their rights.

The colony for homosexuals on San Domino did not last long. In May 1940, with Italy’s entry into the war and the need for soldiers and space to detain prisoners, the fascist government granted amnesty to the homosexual exiles. The island was converted into a detention camp for political dissidents and Jews. Many exiles returned to their hometowns with mixed feelings. Although the confinement had its challenges, it paradoxically allowed them the freedom to be themselves, a stark contrast to the oppressive conditions they faced elsewhere.

The story of San Domino had faded into obscurity until recent historical research and cultural works, such as the book La città e l’isola by Gianfranco Goretti and Tommaso Giartosio, the graphic novel In Italia sono tutti maschi by Luca De Santis, and the play L’isola degli invertiti by Antonio Mocciola.

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