Russian crime gangs find gay men easy targets

In this Friday, May 27, 2016 photo, visitors talk in a gay club in St. Petersburg, Russia. Russian crime gangs find gays easy targets for blackmail. In the past two years, an increasing number of gays has fallen victim to criminal gangs operating through gay dating sites, rights groups say.

In this Friday, May 27, 2016 photo, visitors talk in a gay club in St. Petersburg, Russia. Russian crime gangs find gays easy targets for blackmail. In the past two years, an increasing number of gays has fallen victim to criminal gangs operating through gay dating sites, rights groups say. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — Criminal gangs in Russia, operating through gay dating sites, have found a lucrative new blackmail target: homosexual men.

A St. Petersburg economist, one of their latest victims, said several men burst into the apartment where he was meeting his date. Claiming that his date was under age, they threatened to call the police and to release a video they had secretly filmed unless he paid up.

The gay rights group Vykhod, or Coming Out, said they registered 12 such attacks in St. Petersburg in 2015 and at least six more gay men have come to them so far this year. LGBT activists believe the real number is far higher and say the attacks have increased in the past two years.

Since homosexuality finds little acceptance in Russian society, many gays keep their sexual orientation hidden from their families, friends and co-workers. This makes them easy extortion targets for criminals.

Vykhod spokeswoman Nika Yuryeva said most of the recent attacks have followed the same pattern as the one seen by the St. Petersburg economist.

Alexander Loza, a legal adviser at Positive Dialogue, an organization that provides consulting services for gays, particularly those living with the HIV virus, has heard similar stories.

“Many gay people in Russia lead a double life, unwilling to disclose their sexual orientation to their family or at work,” Loza said. “In the case of such setup dates, they are afraid to disclose their status, to be accused of pedophilia, and therefore they are afraid to appeal to the police.”

The activists said Russian criminals have been emboldened by a 2013 law that made it a crime to expose children to gay “propaganda,” part of a Kremlin-backed effort to defend traditional family values and counter the influence of what it considers a decadent West.

Alexander Zhelezkin, who manages outreach programs at Positive Dialogue, said the law was what made him decide to become a gay activist.

“Now, my coming out is my defense,” he said.

For prominent television journalist Anton Krasovsky, however, that move ended his career in Russia. He was fired after he came out on the air in 2013 and has been unable to find a job in television since.

Krasovsky said it will be a long time before gays in Russia feel protected enough to speak publicly about their sexual orientation.

“To stop being afraid, they need to begin to trust the state where they live, but they don’t trust the state where they live now,” he said.

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