San Domino Island was once the site of an internment camp for homosexual men that was set up by the fascist Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini.
Situated in the Isole Tremili archipelago off the east coast of Italy in the Adriatic Sea, San Domino has the distinction of being the only internment camp known in history that was solely for homosexual men.
Mussolini’s fascist state had as its core the belief in Italian masculinity encoded in the concept of the new “uomo nuovo” (new man): the brave warrior and husband whose rule over his wife and offspring was unchallenged. The uomo nuovo played a key role in the production of children dedicated to the greater glory of Italy – one of the primary purposes of the new man.
Male homosexuality was associated with sexual molestation of boys, Jewish ethnicity (Jewish men were described as looking effeminate and disheveled). Thus orientation and gender variance were not simply behavioral – they were also linked to what was officially perceived as an inferior race.
The Paradox of Homosexual and Effeminate Italian Men
By virtue of their ethnicity, the racial superiority of Italian men was reflected in their virility (in a heteropatriarchal way), which made the elimination of homosexuals and effeminate males from the public eye a necessary step, since by fascist doctrine they could not exist in the first place. But the manner in which they were eliminated in Italy was markedly different from German fascism. Nazis, aided by laws against male homosexuality in the legal system before Hitler took power, recognized the existence of homosexual and effeminate men (but not lesbians, however) and sought to either castrate them or work them to death in concentration camps. Another factor might have been the openly Gay culture thriving in Berlin before the Nazi crackdown – it would have been virtually impossible for anyone in the capital city to believe that no German men were homosexual.
Italy, on the other hand, had no overt laws against male homosexuality. The ubiquity of the Roman Catholic Church in Italy would have made the open lifestyle afforded to Gay men in Berlin much more difficult. This does not mean that there were no places in Italy where homosexuality was better tolerated. A major raid in the Sicilian city of Catania netted 42 “pederasts,” an unusual event since most arrests were individual, not done in a full-scale roundup. This large-scale sweep implies a fairly open scene for Gay men in Catania, at least compared to the rest of Italy. It is also important to note that male homosexuality in pre-Stonewall New York City appeared to be especially prominent in the Sicilian community.
With a less visible population and no laws on the books, the solution for Italian fascists was to simply remove homosexual and effeminate men to a place where they were even less visible, so an internment camp was set up for them on San Domino Island.
Conditions in the Camp
In 1938, hundreds of men were sent to the camp on Domino Island and forced to live in austere dormitories with no running water or electricity. at 8 pm, a bell was rung and all inmates were locked up in their rooms. On the other hand, the camp was populated by inmates who were already assumed to be homosexual, so there was no need to hide their orientation. Some of them chose to dress as women. The camp closed in 1939 as Italy entered World War II.
Andits, Eszter. “Sore on the nation’s body”: Repression of Homosexuals Under Italian Fascism. MA thesis for Central European University History Department. Budapest, Hungary, 2010. http://people.ucalgary.ca/~ptrembla/gay-lesbian-bisexual/01d-full-text-bisexual-history-community.htm
Ebner, Michael R. Ordinary violence in Mussolini’s Italy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.