Rightists through history-- always looking for easy scapegoats for an unpalatable agenda that can't survive without divisiveness-- have been obsessed with homosexuality. This week we saw Florida's Tea Party junior senator, Marco Rubio, shrilly threatening to scuttle his own immigration bill if it includes protections for LGBT families.
While discussing Senator Patrick Leahy’s (D-VT) proposed amendment to the immigration bill-- which would grant same-sex couples the same protections as heterosexual couples by making the law recognize “any marriage entered into full compliance with the laws of the State or foreign country within which such marriage was performed”-- Rubio insisted that he could not abide by such a rule.Halfway round the world-- and two thousand years ago-- a very uptight Emperor Augustus exiled his granddaughter, Julia the Younger, to Isole Tremiti, a tiny archipelago off the coast of southeastern Italy in he Adriatic Sea. She had committed adultery and she died there. Later, in the early 1900s, when Italy embarked on rebuilding an empire, they used the Tremiti Islands as a prison for dissidents from the conquered province of Libya. When Mussolini took over he decided to use one of the islands, San Domino (the only one with a sandy beach and, today something of a tourist mecca) as an internment camp for gays. As obsessed with homosexuality as Rubio or any other right-wing loon, Mussolini claimed Italy had no homosexuals-- "In Italy there are only real men."
Seventy-five years ago in Fascist Italy, a group of gay men were labeled "degenerate," expelled from their homes and interned on an island. They were held under a prison regime-- but some found life in the country's first openly gay community a liberating experience.Today San Domino Island has 607 reviews by Trip Advisor users of two dozen hotels. Over 100,000 vacationers descend on the island each summer. People fly into Bari's airport and either take a boat from Manfredonia, Vieste and Peschici, Vasto, Pescara or-- most popular-- from Termoli on the coast of Molise. The fast boat is 45 minutes and the slow boat in almost 2 hours. Prices range between €13 and €18€. If you're feeling flush you can take a 20 minute helicopter ride from Foggia for €50. You can't bring a car to the Tremiti Islands-- and they're small enough to explore by foot.
...Back in the late 1930s the archipelago played a part in the effort by Benito Mussolini's Fascists to suppress homosexuality.
Gay men undermined the image that the dictator wanted to project of Italian manhood. "Fascism is a virile regime. So the Italians are strong, masculine, and it's impossible that homosexuality can exist in a Fascist regime," says professor of history at the University of Bergamo, Lorenzo Benadusi.
So the strategy was to cover up the issue as much as possible.
No discriminatory laws were passed. But a climate was created in which open manifestations of homosexuality could be vigorously suppressed.
...The whole episode has been largely forgotten.
It's thought that nobody who endured this punishment is still alive today, and there are few detailed accounts of what went on there.
But 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.
"We were curious because they were called 'the girls'," says Carmela Santoro, an islander who was just a child when the gay exiles began to arrive.
"We would go and watch them get off the boat... all dressed up in the summer with white pants-- with hats.
"And we would watch in awe-- 'Look at that one, how she moves!' But we had no contact with them."
Another islander, Attilio Carducci, remembers how a bell would ring out at 8pm every day, when the men were no longer allowed outside.
"They would be locked inside the dormitories, and they were under the supervision of the police," he says.
"My father always spoke well of them. He never had anything bad to say about them-- and he was the local Fascist representative."
...[S]ome 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."
And he said that of course, there was romance, and even fights over lovers.
...It is deeply ironic that in the Italy of that time, they could find a degree of freedom only on a prison island.
The party of gay and lesbian rights activists who gathered on the archipelago the other day put down a plaque in memory of the exiles.
It will be a permanent reminder of Mussolini's persecution of homosexuals.
"This is necessary, because nobody speaks of what happened in those years," said one of the activists, Ivan Scalfarotto, a Member of Parliament.
And the suffering hasn't ended for Italy's gay community, he says. They are no longer shackled and shipped off to islands-- but even now they are not regarded as "class A" citizens.
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.