IN 1967, Nicola De Bartolo appeared before Italy’s Supreme Court of Cassation. She was appealing a conviction for “wearing a mask in a public place.” Unbeknownst to De Bartolo, her case would mark a watershed moment in Italian legal history. It would be cited frequently to justify the repression, surveillance, incarceration, and even deportation of queer people in Italy throughout the 1960s and ’70s.
Something was strange about De Bartolo’s conviction for “wearing a mask in a public place.” De Bartolo was not wearing a mask at the time of the arrest. Instead, she was dressed in a blouse, “a skirt, nylon tights, women’s shoes, long hair, make-up, painted nails” and carried a “woman’s purse”—but no mask. The lower court found De Bartolo guilty of mascheramento, or “mask-wearing,” because her material dress obscured her “natural” biological sex. Because De Bartolo was biologically male, the Court found, her typically “feminine” dress made it impossible to recognize “him.” For the lower court, this alleged obfuscation amounted to a criminal act. The Supreme Court of Cassation affirmed.
Why were Italians prohibited from wearing masks? And why was De Bartolo’s gender expression conflated with wearing one? The answer lies in a little-known Fascist law that hadn’t been enforced for decades: Article 85.