Not Paradise Island?
San Domino, a gay island community created by Italy’s Fascists
by Alan Johnston
In 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.
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.
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.”
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 number of gay men were interned along with political prisoners on other small islands, such as Ustica and Lampedusa, but San Domino was the only one where all the exiles were gay.
It is deeply ironic that in the Italy of that time, they could find a degree of freedom only on a prison island.
There is still no real social stigma attached to homophobia in Italy, Scalfarotto says, and the state doesn’t extend legal rights of any kind to gay or lesbian couples.
Their struggle for equality goes on.
Image from: In Italia Sono Tutti Maschi — the 2008 graphic novel written by Luca de Santis and illustrated by Sara Colaone — tells the story of gay people exiled under fascism in Italy in the late 30s.