Tourism officials have worked for years to make this beach town a gay-friendly destination. Now their biggest obstacle could be the mayor himself.
Mayor Jim Naugle has made a string of recent comments that critics say were blatantly homophobic.
He portrayed city park restrooms as popular gay sex spots, opposed a plan to house a gay book collection in a public library and insists on using the word “homosexual” because many of them “aren’t gay, they are unhappy.” He also said tourism officials should put less emphasis on attracting gays, and he objected to tourism brochures showing men together in bed.
His stand has prompted angry protests, demands that the six-term mayor resign, and his removal Tuesday from the area’s Tourism Development Council.
“We’ve got a message that says we’re a warm, welcoming, safe destination, and his message is virtually the opposite,” said Nicki Grossman, head of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The mayor has painted a frightening picture of his city, and we’re desperately trying to change that.”
Cornerstone of tourism industry
Naugle, a 53-year-old married man and father of a 9-year-old daughter, insists that he is not a homophobe and that he is aware of the many contributions gays have made here. He says he is simply trying to combat illegal and unsafe activity.
“If it were done by heterosexuals or bisexuals or homosexuals, it really wouldn’t make any difference,” he said.
Gays are a cornerstone of this city’s tourism industry, pitting Fort Lauderdale against other popular vacation spots, including Miami and Key West. Last year, officials say, about 980,000 of the area’s 10.4 million visitors were gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender, and they spent $1.1 billion of the roughly $8.5 billion generated by tourists.
Tourism officials say Naugle’s remarks about gays and his depiction of the city as one swept by perverts lurking in parks and at bathhouses have done major harm. They say his comments are dissuading not only gays from visiting, but also families who fear the city is unsafe for their children.
The visitors bureau typically sets aside $350,000 of its $5 million advertising budget for marketing targeted at gays, but earmarked $450,000 this year because it was deemed a growth market. Officials said they may need to spend even more, and dip into a reserve kept in case of a hurricane, to combat Naugle’s comments.
“This community has been torn apart,” Grossman said. “Now the healing begins.”
Mayor allegedly distorting facts
The controversy started last month when Naugle proposed public bathrooms whose doors automatically unlock after a short time — a feature he said would discourage sex acts. In reaction, gay rights advocates urged people to send the mayor rolls of toilet paper as part of a “Flush Naugle” campaign.
When the uproar seemed to reach a peak, Naugle promised to apologize. He did — not to the gay community, but to children and their parents. He said he was sorry he hadn’t been aware how bad the problem of public sex was.
Police had no immediate figures on arrests for public sex, but in a 2½-year period covering 2005, 2006 and the first half of 2007, 92 arrests — or three a month — were made for lewd and lascivious acts, a charge that could include bathroom sex but also women going topless, teenage couples having sex on the beach or people peering into restroom stalls.
“He’s twisting and distorting facts and statistics to fit his own distorted view of what’s going on here,” said Stacy Ritter, a Broward County Commissioner who voted this week to remove Naugle from the tourism board.
Source of tension
Naugle has also said his efforts have been aimed at stemming HIV infections in Fort Lauderdale, where more than 14,000 people have HIV or AIDS. But for a mayor who has been in office since 1991, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, many call the sudden attention suspicious.
“Broward County and the city of Fort Lauderdale have been at the epicenter of the AIDS crisis for a generation,” said Coleman Prewitt, a gay attorney who helped start UNITE Fort Lauderdale, a group aimed at Naugle’s recent statements. “And for the mayor to come out and say he just discovered this — either he’s completely out of touch and incompetent or he’s disingenuous.”
It is not the first time Naugle has been a source of tension, or the first time he has riled gays. In 2000, he was the lone member of the City Commission to vote in favor of a grant for the Boy Scouts despite its ban on gay scoutmasters.
“He relished the circus that took place,” said Dean Trantalis, a gay lawyer who served as a city commissioner. “Instead of trying to quiet the dispute, he exacerbated it.”
A 'pro-toilet sex group'
Naugle has called this city home his entire life. Because of recently enacted term limits, he must leave office in 2009. He said he plans to return to real estate and would not consider another run for office until his daughter is 18.
He is registered as a Democrat but calls himself a conservative and supported President Bush and numerous other Republicans. He listens to Rush Limbaugh and has framed pictures of Karl Rove and Ann Coulter in his office.
Naugle dismisses UNITE Fort Lauderdale as a “pro-toilet sex group.”
“If I have a fault, it’s at times I’m blunt, I’m plainspoken,” he said. But he said the voters clearly “want someone in office that isn’t afraid to speak the truth and not be cowed by the political consequences.”
He said he has received some 7,000 e-mails related to his comments and says a majority expressed support for him. Supporters have also written letters to the editor, calling him moral and courageous.
“The majority of our elected officials lack the courage and backbone to stand up and be counted,” wrote Jerry Pizza. “Many prefer to remain in the middle of the road on controversial and important issues.”