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Gay Unfriendly

The mayor says he tries to be tolerant of gays -- but he can't "personally accept" their lifestyle
Melissa Jones

It's one award bestowed on the city that you'll never hear Mayor Jim Naugle boasting about in his upcoming campaign speeches: Best Tourist Destination of the Year.

Naugle would be proud if the honor had been presented by, say, a national coalition of churches or a chamber of commerce. But instead it came from one of the world's largest gay travel information networks, Out & About Online. In winning the award, the city joins the ranks of South Beach, San Francisco, and London, which are all previous Out & About honorees for their hospitality to homosexuals.

"With indigenous appeal and vigorous support from its mainstream tourist infrastructure, Fort Lauderdale has put itself on the gay travel map, as important to gay tourism as its flashier southern sisters, South Beach and Key West," Out & About proclaims on its Website (www.outandabout.com).

While Naugle acknowledges the economic worth of gay tourists -- who have been estimated to bring more than a half-billion dollars to Broward County per year -- he does see a potential downside.

"It could hurt our family business. We try to promote our city as a place for families," says the mayor. "I would never proclaim ourselves as a gay-tourist capital."

And as Fort Lauderdale gains a national reputation as a friendly place for gays, the mayor says he doesn't "approve of" or "personally accept" homosexuality.

"I feel that this [gay] movement has gone too far," Naugle says. "Gay-rights activists keep raising these issues that I don't feel the mainstream public cares about. I have difficulty understanding it…. It clashes with my religious beliefs."

Naugle says his beliefs are personal rather than political, but his gay constituents -- who have been widely credited with helping to revitalize Fort Lauderdale neighborhoods and business districts -- were nonetheless outraged by his comments. Robin Bodiford, a lesbian political activist, says the mayor needs to be tossed from office, even though she says she agrees with him politically on most city issues.

"I have to take a strong stand against him to continue being mayor of this city," says Bodiford, who is also a lawyer and a member of the city's parks and recreation board. "It's an outrage that he is mayor of this city. Our large [gay] population, the incredible amount of money gay tourists spend -- I will encourage the gay and lesbian community to oppose his reelection. The position that he takes with regard to me and my community is unacceptable."

Naugle had never before publicly stated his disapproval of gays, but his comments only underscore years of tension and battles -- largely gone unnoticed by the public at large -- between the mayor and his gay constituents.

Two years ago Naugle was the sole city commissioner to vote against giving gays and lesbians protection under the city's antidiscrimination laws, saying that he doesn't believe in special classes of people.

The Dolphin Democratic Club, which is comprised of gays, censured Naugle for his vote. "We called him a homophobe," says Shane Gunderson, a politically active Dolphin board member who also writes a column for the gay magazine Scoop. Gunderson says he hasn't changed that opinion.

Naugle reacts to that label by saying, "Oh, I think they're heterophobic."

At the time of the censure, Naugle said that he would pray for the Dolphin club, a rather cryptic remark. Naugle simply says he was praying that they would become more tolerant of his views -- which is exactly what gays say they wish of Naugle.

It's not the only time Naugle has invoked religion when dealing with gays. He was quoted in a gay magazine a couple years ago saying that gays should "turn the other cheek" to gain acceptance, rather than wage a vocal battle for rights. Naugle doesn't remember the remark but offers that it "sounds like something I'd say."

While Naugle has never been sympathetic with gays, he's friendly with the man whom many gays regard as their most vile enemy: the Rev. D. James Kennedy. Kennedy's multimillion-dollar Christian teleministry, which is viewed around the country, is based at his Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church. Kennedy's Center For Reclaiming America, which is aligned with the Christian Coalition, has taken the lead nationally in battling against gay rights and equating homosexuality with sin. Naugle says he is scheduled to speak at the Center For Reclaiming America's next convention.

When the subject of gays comes up, Naugle, unbidden, almost invariably brings up Kennedy and the "great work" he's doing. Kennedy "brings great recognition and positive publicity to the city," Naugle says.

In 1994 Naugle joined forces with another reputed gay-basher named Fred Guardabassi. He was already on record against the "gay agenda" when Naugle nominated him for the city's Charter Review Board. Shortly thereafter Guardabassi wrote a letter to the Sun-Sentinel denouncing gays and referring to them as "fags" and "homos" and "queers." Guardabassi's rant warned that gays were infiltrating the schools, bringing down property values, and threatening the health of "the whole community through the spread of AIDS." The letter led the city commission to vote against Guardabassi's reappointment. But Naugle stuck by Guardabassi and still does. He says Guardabassi simply isn't politically correct and has "strong views on certain subjects."

"And I admire that," Naugle says, "just like I think highly of Reverend Kennedy."

But Naugle himself doesn't always state his opinions strongly on the matter of homosexuality. In a recent New York Times article about a proposed high-rise retirement center for gays in downtown Fort Lauderdale near the New River, Naugle (whose name was misspelled "Knaugle" by the nation's newspaper of record) was quoted as saying: "Some people will support it, some people will oppose it. I think it could be a successful project."

Jeffrey Dillon, one of the developers of the proposed high-rise, says he read that as an endorsement of the project. Far from it. Naugle instead says that he thinks the project might be illegal. "It may be illegal to market something based on sexual orientation," Naugle says. "It could be discrimination. What if somebody advertised a place for straights? Think about that."

Naugle, however, tempers his disapproval of gays with economic pragmatism, which is what came across in the New York Times article. Of the high-rise Naugle also says, "If it contributes to the tax roll and is a positive development in our city, then it's great."

It's a balancing act, says Naugle of the way he handles gay issues. When asked if he wishes gays wouldn't visit Fort Lauderdale, his answer is no, because "it's smart to diversify the tourist base.

"I try to be tolerant and try to accept someone's views that are different than mine," he says, "but that doesn't mean that I agree with them."

It's that fundamental disagreement, however, that has gays wishing Naugle would retire from politics. Gunderson says Naugle rates as the worst politician in Broward County on gay issues, and Bill Salicco, another gay political activist who is running for the city commission, says gays are to blame because they failed to run a viable candidate against him this year. Naugle has no serious competition, Salicco says, because he is widely regarded as so popular that he's unbeatable.

"That's a myth," Salicco says of Naugle's perceived invincibility.

Yet Salicco himself chose not to run against Naugle. Instead he's running for the seat held by Jack Latona, who is supportive of gay causes and well liked in the gay community. Salicco says he didn't feel the need to run against Naugle, because he isn't running on gay issues but rather simply on his ideas about how to run the city. "My campaign has nothing to do with gay issues," he says, adding that the city is already so progressive that gays have gotten everything they need.

So Naugle's unpopularity in the gay community has had little political consequence. Even as he refuses to accept their sexual orientation, he says he'll never discriminate against gays and tries his best to be tolerant -- and he hopes gays do the same in judging him.

"Usually I think they judge me for what kind of mayor I am and not what I think about someone's sexuality," he says.

Contact Bob Norman at his e-mail address:

Bob_Norman@newtimesbpb.com


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