“On the Island, on the other hand, we would celebrate our Saint’s days or the arrival of someone new… We did theater, and we would dress as women there, and no-one would say anything.”
– Giuseppe B.
With our fifth article, we begin our first themed series and our first discussion of an event rather than a person. We will be looking at World War 2 and the role the queer community played in the events before, during, and after. This article specifically will focus on pre-war individuals and events, and will not be the last of its kind. We hope to keep things in chronological order as this series continues, but don't be surprised if things get a little muddled.
We begin in Italy, 1938. Hitler is coming into power as is another man of great infamy: Benito Mussolini. Among many other things, one of Mussolini's visions for Italy's future was to present the country as being filled with 'perfect' men. The Mussolini of 1938 had built a clear image of the ‘perfect’ man: husband, father, soldier, and as traditionally masculine as possible. In his mind, gay men did not fit this ideal. He believed being gay was the same as being feminine, and most likely mislabeled other queer identities as gay, thus harming more of the queer community than he originally anticipated (though, if he had been aware of what he was doing, we're certain he would've been pleased). So, among many other atrocities, he planned to eradicate gay men from Italy. What made this slightly complicated was that he wanted to do so without admitting their existence.
He wanted the world, and his citizens, to believe Italy was already reaching his idea of perfection. Because of this, he was unable to pass any official laws against homosexuality, as that would have required him to acknowledge its existence. Despite this obstacle, Mussolini still acted to punish the queer community. He forced many suspected queer individuals into what was called 'internal exile.' Islands such as Ustica and Lampedusa had camps of queer people and political opponents. San Domino was another one of these islands but had one important difference. San Domino, instead of serving its intended purpose as a prison, became Italy’s first recorded exclusively queer community.
Let us first clarify that we do not mean to say this was a perfect place. Queer individuals arrived in handcuffs and came to live in camps with no running water or electricity. These individuals were watched by prison guards and required to follow an eight p.m. curfew. They were taken from their families and friends and told that their country was ashamed of their existence.But something we have shown time and time again throughout history is that the queer community knows how to make the best of the awful things society forces upon them.
Due to the hyper-religious, conservative mindset of Italy during this time, many prisoners saw San Domino as an escape, rather than a punishment. These individuals were placed in the company of others like them and were allowed, for the first time, to embrace their identities and desires openly. Relationships began, theater performances embracing queerness were performed, and a community of strong individuals was formed out of the adversity the Italian government had tried to feed. These people created a community on that island and did the opposite of what Mussolini had wanted. Instead of fading away, they flourished.
Unfortunately, this moment of relative safety could not last forever. In 1939, when World War 2 officially began, the internal exiles ended. The occupants of the camps on all the islands were sentenced to house arrest, and their lives were not recorded. We know, however, that their lives did not get better from there. Few individuals remained open about their identities when they returned to society. This return to secrecy, along with the limited number of records from the island camps, limits our knowledge of the specifics of what happened to those individuals afterward.
Unsurprisingly, though, the queer community has not let it go to its history. Plaques have been placed in memory of the prisoners in San Domino, and in 2005, activists forced the Italian government to recognize the atrocities they had made queer people go through.
One of the most telling facts about this small window of safety in solitude was that when the prisoners found out they were being taken back to their homes, they wept. These people found happiness in a place made to break them. The prospect of returning to a country that despised them and limited them was heartbreaking because it meant returning to the limitations of their previous lives. This, compounded by their experiences of acceptances on the island prisons, was like tasting a buffet only to have all the food snatched away; they would always long for what they once had. All of this emotional devastation came from places that were supposed to be prisons, yet it was hardly the emotional devastation Mussolini had intended. The Italian queer community made a home out of prison.
This small story of San Domino is huge. The establishment and destruction of this community take place over one single year, and it matters. It matters because it represents something much larger. It represents the resilience of the queer community and a subversion of the intentions of the powers that would see it struck down.
In this WWII series, will discuss many heavy topics, but it was important to start here. It is important to start on San Domino, with these people. These people, who were persecuted, treated terribly by their own country, but found a home in each other, as the queer community before it and after it would. The queer community did what it has historically been known to do, and it found safety and happiness in people, rather than society or physical places. Through all the adversity and horrific injustice the queer community has faced, it has stuck together and found strength in solidarity. Generations of queer people before had done the same, but the recording of such strength would, and has, inspired continued strength within the community into this modern era.
It is important for us to start then, in this moment of togetherness, because it is this tradition of unfaltering strength that has always gotten us through. And that is a message we want to impart unto our readers before we continue; although the stories we are sharing are not always happy ones, we have built homes from prisons. Nothing has broken us yet, and nothing ever will.
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
Johnston, A. (2013, June 13.) A gay island community created by by Italy’s Fascists.
BBC News. Retrieved Apr 1 2016 from http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-22856586
Adnum, M. (2016, February 2.) The Fascinating Take of Fascist Italy’s All-Gay Island Paradise.
The Huffington Post. Retrieved Apr 1 2016 from
Lubbe, F. (2014, April 30.) San Domino - The World’s First Exclusive Gay Community?
Hot Salt Beef & Mustard. Retrieved Apr 1 2016 from
Seeker Network. How Mussolini Created A Gay Island Community.
Retrieved Apr 1 2016 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l8CrJpZqAhk