FORT LAUDERDALE—Mayor Jim Naugle and 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 in a political war with gays that started this summer when he said public bathrooms in Fort Lauderdale are plagued by gay men cruising for sex and added he uses the term "homosexual" because "most of them aren't gay. They're unhappy."
Although the Health Department has no statistics concerning how many cases of HIV are contracted via sex in public bathrooms or parks, Naugle ties the two together.
"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A Broward County Health Department official said some statistics the mayor and his supporters have been using are outdated. For example, according to AIDS surveillance manager Pat Callahan Taylor, Broward used to be first in the nation in the number of reported AIDS cases per 100,000 residents. That's no longer true, though the county is likely still near the top.
Broward does have an HIV/AIDS crisis and it has been ongoing for years, she said. 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 county's roughly 6,900 HIV cases diagnosed over 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," Taylor said. "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."
HIV experts say research shows that unprotected sex is just as risky for heterosexual couples as for gay men.
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. Speakers at Tuesday's news conference veered from the dangers of gay sex to discuss the Bible, and what God thinks of gays.
The speakers included: the Rev. O'Neal Dozier of Pompano Beach's Worldwide Christian Center; medical doctor John Diggs of Massachusetts, who wrote a paper titled "The Health Risks of Gay Sex"; 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."
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 said.
"We are concerned [about] the moral fiber of this city," McBride said.
In the audience, gay activists said the speakers were using the HIV/AIDS issue to stigmatize gays and condone violence against them.
"This is unacceptable!" shouted Broward resident Michael Rajner, president of Campaign to End AIDS. "You're using the Bible as a weapon against the community!"
Rajner, 36, said he contracted HIV in New York and has lived 12 years with AIDS.
"You are demonizing AIDS!" he shouted.
"Every hate crime that comes out of here is at your feet!" shouted Anthony Niedwiecki, who helped form a group called Unite Fort Lauderdale last month in the wake of the mayor's comments.
Niedwiecki was holding a printout of an article 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.
Staff Writer Bob LaMendola contributed to this report.
Brittany Wallman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4541.