Legal but… A Brief Overview of the Regulation of Homosexuality in Italy

Alessio Ponzio (he/him/his), received his PhD in history and politics from the Universitá Roma Tre and his second PhD in women’s studies and history from the University of Michigan. Ponzio is the author of several articles and two books. He has held postdoctoral fellowships at the Leibniz Institute of European History (IEG-Mainz), at the Suzy Newhouse Center for the Humanities (Wellesley College) and at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He is Assistant Professor in Modern European History and History of Gender and Sexuality at the University of Saskatchewan (Canada) and Professor in the History of Homosexuality at the Università di Torino. Ponzio is a member of the Queer Caucus of the American Association of Italian Studies and cofounder of the LGBT+ History Month Italia (organized for the first time in April 2022) and of the International Committee on LGBTQ+ History Months. After two years in the Italian team, Ponzio joined from July 2023 the 2SLGBTQ+ History Month Canada team, working with Meryem Benslimane. Ponzio is part of the editorial team of the Italian online magazine Gay.it and is currently working with UNAR – the Italian National Anti-Racial Discrimination Office – to create a website about LGBTQ+ history and queer issues in Italy.

In contrast to many other Western countries, same-sex acts were decriminalized in Italy at the end of the 19th century. There were several failed attempts to recriminalize same-sex sexuality in the 20th century. But we should not be deceived by the seeming tolerance of Italian politicians and the absence of repressive laws. In the decades following the official decriminalization of same-sex sex, sexual and gender nonconformity faced moral condemnation, social stigma and other legal sanctions.

Not A Crime

Sodomy – understood as any form of sexual activity that did not involve penile-vaginal intercourse – was decriminalized by the French Assembly in 1791. This measure was confirmed by the Penal Code of 1810. This decision had important repercussions in Italy, where several States, then controlled by Napoleon, began to implement the French penal code.

History of early modern Italy - Wikipedia
In the early 19th century only the Kingdom of Sardinia and the Kingdom of Sicily were independent. The rest of the Italian territory was under French direct and indirect control (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingdom_of_Naples_%28Napoleonic%29#/media/File:Italy_c_1810.png).

However, after 1815, sodomy was criminalized in Lombardy-Venetia, by then under Austrian rule, and remained a crime in the Kingdom of Sardinia, which was never under Napoleonic control.

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Map of Italy after Restoration ca. 1843 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Italian_War_of_Independence#/media/File:Italy_1843.svg).

In 1861, after the unification of Italy under the aegis of the Kingdom of Sardinia, a commission was set up to study the possibility of applying the Sardinian penal code to the whole of the national territory. This commission decided not to apply article 425 of the Sardinian penal code, which punished libidinous acts against nature, in the territory of the former Kingdom of the Two Sicilies where sodomy had been decriminalized in 1819. As a result, “lewd acts against nature” committed by any person – male or female – were only potentially punishable in the North. This ambiguity was finally resolved in 1889, when the new code decriminalized same-sex behaviors nationwide.[1]

Unspeakable

In 1925, the problem of the legal status of homosexuality resurfaced when the Fascist regime began to revise the penal code. In 1927, the first draft of the new code criminalized homosexual acts (art. 528). Whether the state should punish only male same-sex sex was not clearly stated in the text of the new clause. This ambiguity could have been an opening for the use of this article against lesbians. However, this provision was not included in the final version of the 1931 legislation. It was not considered necessary to criminalize homosexuality because the “abominable vice” was allegedly not widespread enough in the country to warrant legislative intervention.

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The movie Una giornata particolare (A Special Day, 1977) explores gender roles, masculinity, and homosexuality in Fascist Italy (https://www.cinemazed.be/nl/film/una-giornata-particolare)

Crimes such as rape, corruption of minors, violence, and obscenity committed by homosexuals would be covered by existing laws, while the Public Security Laws of 1926 would provide the police with sufficient powers to keep homosexuals in check. In fact, Fascists could resort to a variety of repressive measures to regulate homosexuality, in addition to forced internment in asylums and involuntary hospitalization: 1) exile (banishment to isolated villages or islands for a renewable period of one to five years); 2) probation (or rather supervised freedom); and 3) a warning (notice that a person was under surveillance). These punishments were imposed without trial, which meant that the accused could not defend themselves. Avoiding publicity, asylums, hospitals, exile, probation, and warnings proved to be the best means of repression, since the Fascists did not want public discussion of homosexuality. The “homosexual vice” was unspeakable and should remain so.[2]

1950s: “Homosexuality-Repression”

Homosexuality began to be widely discussed in the press after World War II. Although legal, it remained stigmatized.

A newspaper with a person's profile

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Everest, “Un dramma fra invertiti” (Drama among inverts), Crimen, May 6-13, 1947, 5 (https://notchesblog.com/2021/05/25/unspeakable-practices-under-the-capri-sun/)

Attention to homosexuality as a danger to young people increased especially during the 1950s. In September 1952, the police issued the memo “Homosexuality-Repression” in response to an alleged increase in homosexual crimes. It urged the police to use all available means to suppress “deviant” behaviors. In April 1954, the Chief of the Roman Police issued another memo urging his patrols to keep “deviants under control”. Finally, in 1956, the Italian Parliament passed Law No. 1423 – Preventive Measures against Persons Considered Dangerous to Security and Public Morals – which essentially reaffirmed, with subtle modifications, the Fascist Public Security Laws of 1926. According to this new law, any person found to be engaging in activities considered contrary to public morality could be warned, kept under surveillance or, if considered particularly dangerous, forced to live in a remote place chosen by the police. The only difference with the Fascist regulation was that special surveillance and confinement needed to be authorized by a judge. This law could impact anyone who had not been charged with a crime but who was still considered socially dangerous because of their “lifestyle.”[3]

Early 1960s Sex Panic 

Towards the end of the 1950s, the closure of brothels (September 1958) was the cause of a real wave of sexual panic in the country.[4] Members of parliament from the neo-fascist right – the Italian Social Movement (MSI) – began arguing that young men, who no longer had easy access to female bodies, would begin to accept the advances of homosexuals willing to pay them for their “services.” As a result of this new atmosphere, a bill was presented by the MSI in January 1960. Its purpose was to introduce article 527A into the penal code. The proposal, which was never debated in Parliament, stipulated that anyone having sexual relations with a person of the same sex would be fined and imprisoned from 6 months to 2 years. It provided for increased punishment if the act caused scandal and if one or more minors were involved.[5]

In 1960, a series of scandals involving the world of juvenile prostitution brought homosexuality into the news. As a result of the media campaign against homosexuals, the member of parliament Bruno Romano proposed a particularly punitive law against the homosexual “plague”.

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Lo Specchio, October 16, 1960. Cover dedicated to one Italy’s greatest homosexual scandals, the Balletti Verdi scandal. (https://www.giornaledistoria.net/saggi/ragazzi-squillo-ballerini-e-battoni-la-prostituzione-maschile-nellitalia-post-merlin/)

According to the proposed law, anyone found guilty of homosexual acts would be fined and imprisoned from six months to three years. In cases where a minor was involved, even with consent, the adult was liable to five to ten years’ imprisonment. Punishment was reduced if a minor committed the crime. It was increased if the offender used violence and drugs, abused his position of power, bribed the victim, and/or committed the crime in a public place. Finally, the law stipulated that anyone who promoted homosexuality through the press, radio, television, theater, cinema, or public events would be punished by five to ten years in prison.

On April 29, 1961, the proposal was tabled in parliament, but was never the subject of debate. The MSI’s last attempt to criminalize homosexuality, in 1963, was also not debated. Essentially, the Italian government, under the firm leadership of the Christian Democrats, continued to follow the policy initiated by the 1889 code: social condemnation of homosexuality, but not criminalization, to keep it concealed.[6]

Not Criminalization But Social Stigmatization

Article 28 of the Military code, which banned “inverts” from military service as of May 1964, was the only provision in Italian law that explicitly referred to homosexuality in a discriminatory way. This measure had very serious consequences for employment. In fact, persons banned from military service could not obtain a certificate of good health required for certain professions and public service. According to article 52 of the Italian Constitution, defending the homeland is the citizen’s sacred duty, a duty discriminatorily limited to men until 1999. The exclusion of homosexual men from military service between 1964 and 1986 – when article 28 was repealed – was a major source of discrimination. It impacted their job prospects, impugned their masculinity and resulted in their exclusion from the national polity, enshrining their status as second-class citizens.

Aside from article 28 of the Military code, it was pervasive social and cultural stigma, rather than repressive laws, that relegated many Italian queers to the status of second-class citizens. As a result, repealing anti-queer laws has never been the primary purpose of Italian activists. One of the main goals of Italian LGBTQ+ organizations, the first of which was founded in 1971, has always been to change the way people think and feel about queer people and advocate for the achievement of that full equality for all promised by article 3 of the Italian democratic Constitution – an equality we are still fighting for.[7]

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The initial prototype issue of FUORI! – the official magazine of the Italian Homosexual Front – was released in December 1971 (https://archivi.polodel900.it/scheda/oai:polo900.it:212772_fuori-mensile-di-liberazione-sessuale-n-zero-dicembre-1971).

Cite this article: Alessio Ponzio, “Legal but… A Brief Overview of the Regulation of Homosexuality in Italy.”, in: History | Sexuality | Law, 14/12/2024, https://hsl.hypotheses.org/2221, (accessed on: Datum).


[1] Barbara Pozzo, “Male Homosexuality in Nineteenth Century Italy: A Juridical View,” in Homosexuality in Italian Literature, Society, and Culture, 1789-1919, eds. Lorenzo Benadusi et all. (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017), 103-128.

[2] Lorenzo Benadusi, The Enemy of the New Man. Homosexuality in Fascist Italy (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012), 104-167. See also the upcoming monograph by Gabriella Romano: Italian Fascism’s Forgotten LGBT Victims. Asylums and Internment, 1922-1943 (London: Bloomsbury, 2024).

[3] Alessio Ponzio, “‘What they had between their legs was a form of cash.’ Homosexuality, Male Prostitution and Intergenerational Sex in 1950s Italy,” Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques, 46, 1 (2020): 62-78. See also Alessio Ponzio, Scandalous Practices: Homosexuality, Male Prostitution, and Sexual Citizenship in Post-Fascist Italy, PhD Dissertation (University of Michigan, 2019) https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/handle/2027.42/153521?show=full.

[4] Alessio Ponzio, “‘Ragazzi squillo,’ ‘ballerini’ e ‘battoni’. La prostituzione maschile nell’Italia post-Merlin.”Giornale di Storia, 34 (2020) https://www.giornaledistoria.net/saggi/ragazzi-squillo-ballerini-e-battoni-la-prostituzione-maschile-nellitalia-post-merlin/.

[5] Ponzio, “‘Ragazzi squillo,’ ‘ballerini’ e ‘battoni’.”; Ponzio, Scandalous Practices.

[6] Ponzio, “‘Ragazzi squillo,’ ‘ballerini’ e ‘battoni’”; Ponzio, Scandalous Practices.

[7] Ponzio, Scandalous Practices.



Cite this blog post
hsl (2024, January 14). Legal but… A Brief Overview of the Regulation of Homosexuality in Italy. History | Sexuality | Law. Retrieved June 24, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/vl0f

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