Mayor Jim Naugle and several religious leaders held a news conference Tuesday to draw attention to what they described as the moral and health risks of gay sex.
Naugle is at the center of a political war between gays and religious conservatives that started earlier this summer when he said public bathrooms in Fort Lauderdale are plagued by gay men cruising for sex and said he uses the term "homosexual'' because "most of them aren't gay. They're unhappy.''
At a news conference in front of City Hall on Tuesday, Naugle and other speakers called on gays to end promiscuous sex in order to stem Broward County's HIV/AIDS crisis. Though the health department has no statistics concerning how many cases of HIV are contracted via sex in public bathrooms or parks, Naugle has tied the two issues together.
He said he has learned a lot about HIV/AIDS since the controversy began in July, and he's motivated to speak out against gay sex in public places not by religious beliefs but by "public health.''
"I think Broward County is forever changed from this exercise,'' he said. "We are going to have less of this activity and I think we're going to save some lives in this county.''
A health department official said some of the statistics used by the mayor are outdated. For example, the county is no longer first in the nation in AIDS cases per 100,000 residents, said the official, AIDS surveilliance manager Pat Callahan Taylor. Broward County does have an HIV/AIDS crisis, she said, and has had one for years. But it's not isolated to gay men.
Black, heterosexual women make up a significant number of new HIV cases. Women make up a third of the 6,913 HIV cases diagnosed in Broward in the past 10 years.
"I think it's really important when you're looking at the numbers to not just look at parts of it,'' said Taylor. "One of our favorite quotes is if you torture a statistic long enough, it will confess to anything. And I think that's what we've seen.''
Speakers at the news conference veered from the topic of public health to discuss the morality of homosexuality, and the event only served to inflame gay activists more.
Though Fort Lauderdale is considered one of the most gay friendly tourist destinations in the country, it has become ground zero for a bitter fight about the morality of homosexuality itself.
"It shows the obsession he has with this,'' said Anthony Niedwiecki, who helped form Unite Fort Lauderdale in the wake of the mayor's comments. "He hasn't been in the media for four days, so he has to have a press conference.''
The speakers included the Rev. O'Neal Dozier of Pompano Beach's Worldwide Christian Center; Dr. John Diggs of the Massachusetts Physicians Resource Council; religious radio personality Janet Folger of Faith2Action; Gary Cass, president of the Christian Anti-Defamation League; Pastor Willie McBride of Lauderdale Christian Center in Plantation; and the mayor.
In front of a banner declaring "Naugle is right,'' Dozier announced that the group and their "Healthy Public Places'' effort were reaching out to gays "in the spirit of love.'' He said, "our coalition is not anti-gay. We are anti-sin.''
"We love them, and God loves them,'' Dozier said. "But God hates the act of homosexuality. It is perverted and goes against God's design.''
One of the negative impacts of this "abomination,'' he said, is the spread of HIV/AIDS.
"I don't want to see God destroy America in the way he destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah,'' Dozier added.
"We are concerned of the moral fiber of this city,'' said Pastor Willie McBride, of the Lauderdale Christian Center in Plantation. " ... We have no hatred in our hearts toward you,'' he said. "When I lie, steal or cheat, God doesn't start hating me. But he hates the act.''
Dr. John Diggs, an internist from Massachusstts and author of a paper titled "The Health Risks of Gay Sex,'' said he traveled to Fort Lauderdale to back up the mayor. Diggs is outspoken on the issue of gay sex and homosexuality.
"It should be clearly seen that homosexual acts have a key role in the spread of all sexually transmitted diseases,'' Diggs said, adding that "homosexuality is an act, it's not the nature of a person.''
Broward County's Health Department (www.browardchd.org) reports that women -- African-American heterosexuals in particular -- make up a large portion of newly reported HIV cases. Diggs said that could be attributed to men on "the down low,'' that is men in heterosexual relationships who engage in gay sex and infect their wives or girlfriends.
In the audience, gay activists said the speakers were using the HIV/AIDS issue to stigmatize gays and condone violence against them.
As Folger spoke, one man's voice drowned out her comments.
"This is unacceptable!'' shouted Michael Rajner, of Broward County, president of Campaign to End AIDS. "You're using the Bible as a weapon against the community! And this is wrong!''
Rajner, 36, said he contracted HIV in New York and has lived 12 years with AIDS.
"You are demonizing AIDS!'' He shouted.
My heart goes out to you, sir,'' Folger answered, attempting to continue her speech.
"Every hate crime that comes out of here is at your feet!'' shouted Niedwiecki, holding a printout of a story about the murder of Kenneth Cummings Jr. in Houston, whose suspected killer told the Houston Chronicle last month that he was sending Cummings to Hell because he was gay.
Naugle spoke last, saying he realized he could save lives. His comments have been picked up by newspapers and online Web sites and television stations across the world. Last week, the New York Times wrote about him.
One key question has been whether sex in public bathrooms is a problem in Fort Lauderdale at all.
Fort Lauderdale police spokesman Sgt. Frank Sousa said in July that it wasn't, and the department has not changed its position.
Naugle said Tuesday that the latest information from the police department shows nine arrests for sex in public in the last two years: five in Mills Pond Park, one at Coral Ridge Mall, two at Holiday Park, and one at the South Beach parking lot.
He said he doesn't advocate cutting off marketing to gay tourists, despite his comments that the county is in a "dilemma'' inviting gay tourists here while at the same time battling a high number of HIV and AIDS cases from male sex.
"We are going to continue to invite people to our community as long as they behave lawfully,'' Naugle said.
Tourism officials have cringed at some of the mayor's statements.
On CNN, host Rick Sanchez asked Naugle earlier this month: "Are you saying that tourism dollars should not be spent to attract gay visitors to South Florida, because they might contract AIDS, here?''
And he answered: "It's not the men coming here spreading the disease. Unfortunately, it's people going home with the disease that maybe they didn't have before they visited Fort Lauderdale.''
City Hall has been inundated with emails on the topic. One woman said she was a lesbian and would not spend another dime here.
"I will now be finding another vacation destination to spend my tourist dollars because I could not stand to spend one penny in a place where the mayor is such an arrogant homophobic bigot and yet claims to be a Christian. Shame on you for hijacking the Christian faith and using it to spew your hateful, elitist garbage,'' her e-mail reads.
The mayor responded with a tourism suggestion: "I hear Atlantis is nice. Or Casa de Campo in the DR (Dominican Republic). Jim''
Staff writer Bob LaMendola contributed to this report.Brittany Wallman can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4541.Copyright © 2015, CT Now