Gay History 101: October 28, 2015

A Special Day is a 1977 film set in 1938 Rome. Photo credit: Johnny Freak.

Seventy-seven years ago in Fascist Italy, gay men were labeled "degenerate", expelled from their homes and interned on an island. The archipelago of the Tremiti Islands, in the Adriatic Sea, played a part, in the late 1930s, in the effort by Benito Mussolini's Fascists to suppress homosexuality.

According to the regime they undermined the dictator’s idea of Italian machismo. So in 1938 forty-five men believed to be homosexuals were rounded up and consigned to internal exile on the island of San Domino. They arrived handcuffed, and then housed in large, spartan dormitories with no electricity or running water. They were held under a prison regime - but some found life in the country's first openly gay community a liberating experience.

In fact, the Fascists created a corner of Italy where you were 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. In a rare interview with a San Domino veteran, published many years ago in the gay magazine, Babilonia – a man named only as Giuseppe B - 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, 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. The paradox is that in the Italy of that time, they could find a degree of freedom only on a prison island. San Domino will be a permanent reminder of Mussolini's persecution of homosexuals. In the 77 years since not much has changed in Italy, there is no real social stigma attached to homophobia, and the state doesn't extend legal rights of any kind to gay or lesbian couples.

At Rome’s Gay center spokesman Fabrizio Marrazzo said that the slow progress on LGBT rights is in part, ironically, due to the fact that there are no anti-gay laws. In other countries homosexuality was criminalized. In Italy it was never illegal. Even under Mussolini the internment of homosexuals was only intended to cover up their existence as much as possible. In Italy back then as now it’s a case of turning a blind eye. Their struggle for equality goes on.

A Special Day (Italian: Una giornata particolare) is a 1977 Italian film starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni set in Rome in 1938, its narrative follows a woman and her neighbor who stay home the day Hitler visits Mussolini. The film is an Italian-Canadian co-production.

It has received several nominations and awards, two Oscar nominations in 1977, and it is featured on the list of the 100 Italian films to be saved. On May 8, 1938, the day Hitler visited Mussolini in Rome, Antonietta, a native and sentimental homemaker stays home doing her usual domestic tasks, while her fascist husband and her six spoilt children take to the streets to follow the parade. The building is empty except for a neighbor across the complex (a charming man named Gabriele. Despite their differences, they warm to each other. He is a radio broadcaster who has been dismissed from his job and is about to be deported to Sardinia because of his anti-fascist stance and his homosexuality.

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