FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida (CNN) -- With white sandy beaches and a laid-back atmosphere, Fort Lauderdale has long billed itself as a gay-friendly tourist destination.
Mayor Jim Naugle says he regrets not speaking out sooner about gay sex in public restrooms.
But recent comments from Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle have drawn protests from the area's gay population and spooked the city's tourism industry.
"He has demonized a group of people," said Waymon Hudson, a spokesman for UNITE Fort Lauderdale. "He should be held accountable for any hate crimes committed against gays."
The controversy started last month when Naugle, a Democrat, said the city needs to buy single-occupancy public toilets to "reduce homosexual sex in bathrooms." Naugle then opposed a plan to put a collection of gay and lesbian literature -- some including adult content -- in a public library. The library collection was approved anyway. Naugle defends his comments »
On Wednesday, the Broward County Commission took the unusual step of releasing a letter signed by all nine commissioners stating the city remains "safe, unbiased and gay friendly."
If Naugle is feeling any heat, he's not showing it. The mayor is set to be co-host of a local radio show Friday, and the topic is sure to come up. He has not backed away from his statements in interviews.
"We don't have men and women having sex together in bathrooms, at least we don't have reports of that. It's men having sex with men, and I feel it's necessary for an elected official to tell it like it is. I don't subscribe to political correctness," Naugle said.
Fort Lauderdale police report there have been four incidents of alleged male sex acts in public bathrooms since November 2005.
Naugle, a six-term mayor, previously sparred with the gay community over his support of the Boy Scouts, who ban gay troop leaders. In a recent interview, Naugle invoked his faith when asked if he thought homosexuality was immoral.
"We're all sinners and you know, you love the sinner and hate the sin," Naugle told WSVN-TV.
Dan Trantalis, the city's former vice mayor, said Naugle is taking advantage of a genuine city issue -- shortage of public bathrooms -- to grandstand on social issues. Trantalis was the first openly gay man to serve on the Fort Lauderdale city commission.
"No mayor, no public official, nobody should be able to talk about somebody else in such stereotyped and negative ways. That's all the mayor is attempting to do here, gain political advantage," Trantalis said.
Despite the complaints, Naugle doesn't face much in the way of political fallout. Term limits keep him from running for mayor after this term is up in 2009 and he has said he has no plans to run for higher office.
But the impact on Fort Lauderdale's coffers could be significant if the controversy doesn't subside.
According to the Greater Fort Lauderdale Visitors and Convention Bureau, nearly 1 million gay tourists visited the city last year and spent more than $1 billion. That's income that may go elsewhere, Naugle's opponents warn, if gays feel they are no longer welcome in Fort Lauderdale.
At a rally last month demanding Naugle's resignation, protester Mike Trost said the mayor should have a greater appreciation for what gays bring to the city. "This is hate. He should be embracing us, embracing our dollars and our strength and our political views."
But if protesters were hoping Naugle would back down, they were quickly disappointed. At a press conference Naugle called to apologize, the mayor told a crowd filled mostly with opponents that he was sorry -- sorry, he said, not for making the comments, but for not making them sooner.
"I want to apologize to the children and to the parents of our community for not being aware of the problem," he said. E-mail to a friend
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