NEW YORK -- The night before Valentine's Day, a group of around 35 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender New Yorkers gathered in the Jackson Heights neighborhood in Queens and talked about their fears related to online dating. Just a few weeks ago, a gay man was found dead in his apartment in the neighborhood, one of three brutal homicides of gay men in New York City in the last month.
The meeting was closed to the press, but Ejeris Dixon, who works at the Anti-Violence Project, the advocacy group that organized the event, described what went on.
"Some people spoke about their own experiences of very life-threatening violence and how it feels to survive," Dixon said Thursday. "We had to do a lot of work of helping people not blame themselves or others for meeting people on the Internet. It's been a constant debate: some folks saying that maybe we shouldn't do this, and other people were like, 'No, it's OK.'"
Wednesday night's meeting was the second the Anti-Violence Project has held in recent weeks to talk about safety and online dating. Dixon said that since the beginning of the year, the group has noticed an uptick in reports of anti-LGBT violence in general, and the recent tragedies have sparked anxiety throughout the community.
Dixon declined to discuss the specifics of the meeting, which was confidential, but some details of the incidents that formed its backdrop are beginning to emerge. Although police have not confirmed whether any of the recent homicides of gay men involved online dating or mobile apps like Grindr -- which allow men to find other men in their vicinity -- there were no signs of forced entry in any of the cases, a fact that suggests that the victims willingly let in their attackers.
On Thursday, police arrested Lleuyel Garcia for the murder of Joseph Benzinger, a gay man who was strangled to death in a hotel room on Saturday. Police believe that Benzinger and Garcia had been romantically involved, but do not yet know how the two men met.
Police say they don't believe Benzinger's murder was connected with the slayings of two other gay men who were also found strangled in recent weeks, but they are continuing to investigate the case as a possible hate crime. Charges are still pending in the homicides of David Rangel and Carles Romo, both gay men in their 40s.
Two of the deaths occurred in Council Member Daniel Dromm's district in Queens, and Dromm, who is openly gay, held a press conference earlier this week to urge members of the LGBT community to use online dating services cautiously, especially when meeting people for the first time.
"More and more people are hooking up online and that's what gives me concern," Dromm said in an interview. "People really need to know who the person is that they're meeting."
While straight people also use the Internet to hook up, gay men can be more vulnerable to violence in such situations, Dromm said. "There are people who like to take advantage of gay people, and there's a stigma attached to the reporting of online dating and being gay, and sometimes people target those that they think are more vulnerable."
Christian Grov, an associate professor of public health at Brooklyn College who studies the sexual health of gay and bisexual men and how men use the Internet to hook up, has found that gay and bisexual men are especially at risk in online dating.
"It is socially acceptable for gay and bisexual men to use the Internet and mobile apps to hook up, yet difficult to know if the other party is genuine or malicious," Grov said.
Robert Lopez, a gay man who works for an apparel company and attended Wednesday night's meeting, said he knows the potential risks, but he still meets up with guys he finds online. "I have a buddy system for me personally," he said. "I tell my best friend where I'm going and what I'm doing."
Lopez first encountered the Anti-Violence Project about a year ago at a bar, where organizers were talking about staying safe when going out. The recent slayings, he said, have made him think twice before he meets up with someone. "I think, 'Do I know this person, should I do this?'" he said. "But I don't think that online dating is ever just going to go away. We're at a point where it's just become such a part of what our society is."