FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - 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 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."
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 to the city. 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 significant 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, perhaps 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."
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.
Police had no immediate figures on arrests for public sex, but in a 2 1/2-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.