Still Where the Boys Are

By Neal Broverman

Originally published on Advocate.com December 21 2007 1:00 AM ET

After reporting,
editing, and reading dozens of stories about homophobia
stinking up Fort Lauderdale this year, I received quite an
interesting e-mail in October. The first line of the
missive read: “Gay and Lesbian Press Trip: Fort
Lauderdale, Timed to Coincide with the 8th International
Conference on Gay & Lesbian Tourism.” The e-mail
had no mention of the city’s hateful mayor, or
that incident in May when some guy named Jethro
Monestime took over the public-address system at the
Fort Lauderdale airport to quote Leviticus (he went
with the old standby, “If a man lies with a man
as one lies with a woman, they should be put
to death”). According to the press release, Fort
Lauderdale is all about gondolas, guesthouses, and
gay, gay, gay! I wouldn’t have missed this for
the world.

On the flight to
Florida I brushed up on my Lauderdale news: In July, Jim
Naugle, the city’s Democratic mayor, made a push for
private bathrooms on the city’s beaches,
telling the local Sun-Sentinel newspaper,
“We're trying to provide a family environment
where people can take their children who need to use
the bathroom without having to worry about a couple of men
in there engaged in a sex act.” Naugle also
dropped this bon mot: “I don’t use the
word ‘gay.’ I use the word
‘homosexual.’ Most of them aren’t gay.
They’re unhappy.” Judging from my
friends, he may have a point, but I wouldn’t
recommend a straight person saying something like that.

Greater Fort Lauderdale Publicity x395 | Advocate.com

Naugle then
announced a press conference where it was assumed he would
apologize. He did say he was sorry -- for not taking gay
public sex more seriously.

Reaction was
swift: A San Francisco LGBT paper urged a boycott of Fort
Lauderdale, and a planned regional convention was put
on hold by one group. Broward County commissioners
responded by booting Naugle from the county’s
Tourist Development Council, and a group of fair-minded
folks initiated the “Flush Naugle”
campaign, which blasted the mayor’s homophobic
remarks and mailed toilet paper to city hall.

This whole
brouhaha was going down at the Greater Fort Lauderdale
Convention and Visitors Bureau was prepping for
November’s queer tourism conference -- which,
wouldn’t you know, had long ago picked FoLa as its
2007 host city. Oy.

Luckily for the
visitors bureau, Naugle has zipped his lip since the
summer. But was the press trip, which had been set up for
the three days preceding the conference, just damage
control? “Not particularly,” says Robert
Einhorn, a publicist hired by the Fort Lauderdale visitors
bureau. "We’re just trying to show the gay
journalists that Fort Lauderdale is still a great
place to visit and an accepting vacation spot.” And
after landing in Miami, I was immediately whisked to the
Fort Lauderdale fabulousness Robert was talking about.
But had gays turned their backs on FoLa to burn their
disposable income in friendlier climes?

Traffic from the
airport derailed my participation in a water taxi ride
and a tour of the new W Hotel, but I was heartened by my
enormous suite at the Elysium, a lovely -- and quiet
-- gay guesthouse. In hushed tones I was alerted to
the clothing-optional policy.

Robert picked me
up and brought me to Sidelines, a gay sports bar in the
town of Wilton Manors, Fort Lauderdale’s adopted
gayborhood. Even between happy hour and Friday night
prime time, the place was packed. I was too busy with
meet and greets to ask barflies if they were tourists or
locals, but most patrons seemed extremely comfortable, so
I'd guess the latter.

After a stiff
scotch, my fellow queer journos and I walked over to
Galanga Thai Kitchen and Sushi Bar -- which was as
packed as Sidelines. We were sequestered in a private
room, so I couldn't quiz any patrons where they were
from. The sushi was good, though.

Following dinner,
we all grabbed a drink at Georgie’s Alibi, a bar down
the street. It was unsophisticated gay fun -- Beyoncé
videos and tight T-shirts. One of the journalists
starting talking up a local fella who announced,
“I just moved to Fort Lauderdale, but I
haven’t met anyone, which is surprising, since
I’m so good-looking.” I alerted the tourism
board -- that guy could do more damage than Naugle.

The next day we
were brought to Butterfly World. The butterflies come
right up and rest on your shoulder -- you feel like Snow
White! While I highly doubt many gay tourists are
going to drive to Butterfly World (about 10 miles
outside of Fort Lauderdale), I found it a nice
distraction from the beach and biceps.

We had lunch at
the Grand Luxe Cafe, a chain restaurant that serves
portions so massive the CEO should be given the
“hungry kids in Africa” speech. Of
course, this was near a mall, so no sign of tourists.

Next up were
tours of Fort Lauderdale beach on a Segway, and even though
I crashed mine and got a hideous bruise on my inner thigh, I
had a great time. The weather was simply perfect --
about 80 and mildly humid -- and the canals of Fort
Lauderdale were really lovely. The beach wasn't dead,
but hardly hopping.

We retired to our
respective guesthouses to freshen up. Like moths to a
flame, the foreign tourists emerged from their rooms for the
Elysium’s cocktail hour. For the first time
since my arrival, the hotel felt occupied. The
visitors were oblivious to Fort Lauderdale’s recent
image problem, but during dinner at the Hard Rock
Hotel and Casino (where Anna Nicole Smith scored her
last methadone hit) I discovered that many of the gay
American journalists weren’t aware of the scandal
either. Maybe FoLa had nothing to worry about.

After dinner we
were delivered to more bars/nightclubs. The visitors
bureau knew what it was doing -- press people love to get
pickled, but gay journalists, well, they’ll
drink witch hazel if it was served in a martini glass.
At a swinging hot spot I spoke to two gents from New York,
and a homophobic mayor and a hateful hick were the furthest
thing from their minds; Fort Lauderdale’s
beaches and boys held way too much sway. Even through
my boozy haze, it was clear that Fort Lauderdale’s $1
billion in gay tourism dollars were not in jeopardy.
Ignorance is bliss, especially when you’re on
vacation.