Under fascism Italy experienced one of the darkest moments in its LGBT+ history. Hundreds of homosexuals (almost exclusively men) were arrested, put on a register by the Ministry of the Interior, and sent to internment camps.
This is the story of the ‘arrusi’. Forty-five gay men from Catania, arrested in 1939 and sentenced to 5 years confinement on Puglia’s beautiful Tremiti islands, unwittingly creating Italy’s first openly gay community.
Their confinement was a form of forced labor and individuals were subjected to hard labour, harsh living conditions and abuse. During confinement the men were also subjected to forced medical treatment, considered subhuman, not people.
The prisoners had no running water or electricity. They were crammed into rudimentary dormitories. Their alleged sexual orientation was recorded upon arrival. Each prisoner would be cataloged in notebooks. Everything the inmates had done was written down.
Of the detainees confined to San Domino, the ‘feminine’ had the most uncertain future. Upon their arrival they were faced with the unknown, not even knowing how long they would be detained, their personal circumstances not tolerated under fascism.
Once on the island, for one reason or another, their sentences were being extended, and they were unable to return home.
Persecuted just for being gay.
But on the island the arrusi also found tolerance. The residents of Puglia’s island archipelago made fun of them at first, mocking them and calling them names, ‘femminile’.
But eventually the residents accepted them. Some became friends, accepted as part of the local community. They were free to go about their business subject to the 10pm curfew. In the morning they could leave at 8 to do their work. There was a worker who had the job of collecting wood for the four bread ovens that provided bread for the whole island.
Eventually the arrusi and other gay detainees were warmly welcomed. They weren’t mistreated. There were even some romantic liaisons and shared physical relations. For years no one from the island wanted to acknowledge that this had also occurred, and it was kept it a secret.
And here for the first time in their lives these gay men found a community and no longer had to lie or hide. Once or twice a week they had parties, even theatrical performances. They lived freely and one day a week some even dressed as women.
Here, under confinement, the arrusi and other gay detainees were finally free to be their authentic selves. Living as openly gay men.
Unknowingly, the fascist regime had created the first openly gay community in Italy. On San Domino in Puglia’s Tremiti Islands, a region that would later become known for its tolerance and as Italy’s favourite gay summer destination for LGBTQIA+ travellers.
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