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A strange device recently appeared on the beach near Sebastian Street in Fort Lauderdale, like a visitation from space. It sported a long ramp, with steering wheels and ratchets and an open cockpit with a wide-screen view of the Atlantic, and hardly anybody noticed.
This was a children's climbing contraption, installed on Sebastian Beach by the city's Parks and Recreation Department. It stands there still. The oddness of its arrival was not in its beige, whimsically concocted look but in the spot where it was placed.
Look around. Can we find a more unlikely place for a playground? On this sunny day, it's business as usual on the beach in the vicinity of the new jungle gym. Two middle-aged men sun themselves on the same towel. Men in colorful little Speedos dash around in the surf. A particularly ripped man, with tight trunks that draw attention to his sculpted butt, stands up and saunters toward the water.
You've got it. Sebastian Beach is Fort Lauderdale's gay beach. This is an unofficial designation, meaning that it has become a gathering place for gays, not that they have been segregated there for any reason. But one thing is clear: Few children gather there.
A mile or so north, at Sunrise Boulevard, there's a vacant space on the beach where a similar climbing structure, made of the same tough recycled plastic, used to stand. This is an area where families from Victoria Park and Coral Ridge, as well as those from the beachside neighborhoods, tend to gather.
So, Tailpipe wondered, what's the deal? Is the city finally acknowledging that members of the gay community sometimes raise families (though gays and lesbians are barred from adopting children in this state)? Are kids from the more northerly neighborhoods less in need of things to climb on?
A man named Wally sat up on his towel to offer two possible explanations for the new arrival. One: The city has no idea this is the gay beach. Two: It did it on purpose to make this area less attractive for gays.
Tailpipe decided to ask Assistant Parks and Recreation Director Terry Rynard. She told 'Pipe that Sebastian Beach had once been the site of a playground that had deteriorated. The new equipment, she said, was simply a replacement. "That is not a new location, necessarily," she said.
Well, when did the older equipment deteriorate? Rynard didn't know. She said she'd get back to Tailpipe.
Those who use Sebastian Beach — including Wally, who has lived in Fort Lauderdale for 16 years — say they can't recall ever seeing playground equipment there.
If there's one person who's on top of issues having to do with sexual orientation in Fort Lauderdale, it's Mayor Jim Naugle. Tailpipe decided to go to the source.
Naugle denies that he was The Decider here. But, informed of the placement of the new play area, he says he approves. Enthusiastically. It distresses him, he says, that Broward County has recommended Sebastian Beach to gays on its tourism website, www.sunny.org. "They have designated certain beaches as gay," he says, "but the city has not."
Naugle wants families to feel free to use Sebastian Beach (and, in fact, no one has ever been denied access there). "Family tourism is a much larger market than the homosexual market anyway," he says.
The subject seems to resonate with Naugle, like chimes that set off other chimes. He has made his disapproval of gays a cornerstone of his public image. He mentions that he doesn't like it that certain hotels market themselves as "gay only." Naugle thinks this may be illegal, and he says he's been meaning to contact some lawyers about it.
Also disturbing to him is the "Rainbow Tourism" section of sunny.org, the Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau website. Rainbow Tourism offers lodging information for gays. "Go through it and you'll even see partially naked images," he says. "Two men lying in bed naked. I just think it's demeaning. They don't show heterosexuals together naked."
Back at the beach, some children have commandeered the climbing structure. A 5-year-old girl inches down a green slide as her little brother tries to scale the mini climbing wall.
The children's father, who asks that his name be withheld, says he would prefer that the apparatus were somewhere else on the beach. It's not that he dislikes gays, he says. But why not put it farther down the beach, in the more family-oriented area?
Wally's partner, Dean, sits up and takes notice. He doesn't understand why the city would choose Sebastian Beach for a new jungle gym, he says, but he'd like it to be known that gay men are members of families.
As the sun begins to drop behind the condos, a dark-haired man walks up. Sam. He is high on two energy drinks, he acknowledges. But he is seeing things with crystal clarity. There's a silver lining to this new addition to the beach, he says. "If you're 5 years old and you're watching the gay society mingle on the beach," Sam says, "maybe you'll be more accepting when you grow up."