San Domino: Gay Island

A long shot of a rocky island with lush trees in the distance.

A long shot of a rocky island with lush trees in the distance.

Content warning for concentration camps, Holocaust

"In those days if you were a femmenella [obviously gay] 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."

– Giuseppe B.

This week we're beginning both our first series and our first discussion of an event rather than a single person. We'll take a look at World War II and the role the queer community played in the events leading up to, during, and after the war. We hope to keep things in chronological order, but history rarely makes things that easy.

We begin in Italy in 1938. Hitler is coming into power along with another man of infamy: Benito Mussolini. One of Mussolini's many visions for Italy's future was to present a country filled with "perfect" men. His idea of a perfect man was clear: husband, father, soldier, and traditionally masculine as possible. In his mind, gay men tainted his perfect country.

Mussolini believed being gay was the same as being feminine. Thus, he targeted groups in addition to gay men; namely transgender women. His plan was to eradicate gay men from Italy, all the while denying their existence in Italy.

He wanted the world and his citizens to believe Italy has already reached a state of perfection. As such, he was unable to pass any official laws against homosexuality. Instead, he forced many suspected queer people and other political opponents into what was called "internal exile." To house his concentration camps, he used Italian islands such as Ustica, Lampedusa, and San Domino. Rather than serving its intended purpose as a prison, San Domino became Italy's first recorded exclusively queer community.

This is not to say San Domino was a perfect place; it was still a concentration camp. Queer people taken from their friends and families arrived in handcuffs and lived under constant supervision from prison guards. They were stripped of their rights, given no access to running water or electricity, and followed strict curfews. They were told that their country was ashamed of their existence. Something we've seen time and time again is that queer communities know how to make the best of the awful things society force upon them.

Due to the hyper-religious, ultra-conservative mindset of Italy in the late 1930s, many prisoners aw San Domino as something of an escape. They 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, queer-positive theatre thrived, and a strong community was formed out of the adversity set forth by the Italian government. The people of San Domino did not fade away as Mussolini intended, they flourished.

Unfortunately, this moment of relative safety could not last. With the beginning of World War II in 1939, the internal exiles ended. Prisoners in the camps were placed on house arrest, and there is little record of their lives following the island. We know, however, that their lives did not get better. Upon returning to society, very few individuals remained open about their identities. This return to secrecy, along with the scarce records from the camps, limits our knowledge of any specifics following the island.

Unsurprisingly, the queer community has not let its history be forgotten. Plaques have been placed in memory of the prisoners of San Domino. In 2005, activists forced the Italian government to acknowledge the atrocities they had committed against queer people.

Perhaps the most telling moment was when the prisoners found out they were taken back to their homes; they wept. These people found happiness, a small window of safety, in a place meant to break them. The idea of returning to a country that despised and limited them was heartbreaking. It was like tasting a buffet only to have all the food snatched away; they would always long for what they once had. Though not the way he'd intended, Mussolini succeeded in devastating the community. The Italian queer community made a home out of prison, and even that was eventually taken away.

Those a short time, the story of San Domino is tremendous. The establishment and destruction of this community took the course of a single year, and it matters. It represents something much larger: the resilience of the queer community and the subversion of the hatred that would strike them down.

This series will inevitably see many heavy topics, but it's important to begin with San Domino, with these people. They were persecuted by their own country, but found home in each other, as our community has done and will continue to do. They found safety and joy in people, rather than physical spaces. Through all the adversity and horrific injustice levelled at the queer community, we find strength in solidarity. Generations of queer people have done it before, and the record of such stories continue to inspire the community in this modern era.

We start with this moment of togetherness because it is this tradition that has always gotten us through. That is the message we want to impart unto our readers as we continue; however dark the stories we share become, know that we have always built homes from prisons. Nothing has broken us yet, and nothing will.

[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]

Adnum, M. (2017, December 26). The Fascinating Tale of Fascist Italy’s All-Gay Island Paradise. Huffpost. Retrieved from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-fascinating-tale-of-fascist-italys-all-gay-island-paradise_b_3762301

De Santis, L., & Colaone, S. (2008). In Italia Sono Tutti Maschi. Bologna: Kappa Edizioni

Johnston, A. (2013, June 13). A gay island community created by Italy's Fascists. BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-22856586

Lubbe, F. (2014, April 30). San Domino — The World’s First Exclusive Gay Community? HotSaltBeef&Mustard. Retrieved from https://hotsaltbeefandmustard.com/san-domino-gay-island-during-world-war-2/

Padilla, L. (2015, August 18). How Mussolini Created A Gay Island Community. Seeker. Retrieved from https://www.seeker.com/how-mussolini-created-a-gay-island-community-1501527926.html