updated 12/23/2008 9:14:44 PM ET 2008-12-24T02:14:44

From a series of street bashings in Seattle to the baseball bat murder of an Ecuadorean immigrant in New York, episodes of anti-gay violence punctuated a year now ending with police investigating the alleged gang rape of a lesbian near San Francisco.

Advocates said Tuesday they do not know whether the threats, beatings and murders reflect a true rise in attacks or increased reporting of hate-based crimes that persist even as gays gain greater visibility and legal protections.

"When you are talking about hate crimes, people think someone is likely to report it, but in some communities the message is not always clear that our society has accepted LGBT folks," said Sarah Tofte, a researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch, referring to the acronym for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people.

Lesbian assaulted
In Richmond, the crime-ravaged Bay Area city where the 28-year-old lesbian reported being assaulted by four men 10 days ago, police on Tuesday received so many calls from community members wanting to help that they asked the local rape crisis center to set up a fund to aid her.

FBI statistics show there were 1,265 hate crimes based on sexual orientation in 2007, up from 1,017 two years earlier and 1,239 in 2003. That compares to 3,820 racially motivated incidents in 2007 and 1,400 in which the victim's religion was a factor.

Because not all states allow attacks motivated by anti-gay bias to be charged as hate crimes and because some victims are reluctant to reveal their sexual orientations to police, gay and transgender rights advocates suspect the numbers to be much higher.

The vast majority of brutality against gays is carried out by young men, usually acting in groups, said Riki Wilchins, executive director of Gender Public Advocacy Coalition, a Washington nonprofit that works in schools to address discrimination.

Victims often feminine men
Their victims most often are other young men with feminine demeanors or transgender women, said Wilchins. "These assailants are looking to eradicate and exterminate something that enrages them, and that is what makes them hate crimes," he said.

GenderPAC published a report in 2006 cataloguing the murders of 50 such victims under 30 years old over a 10-year period. The group has identified another 20 murders of "gender non-conforming youth" that have taken place in the two years since, although FBI statistics for the same period show only five hate crime slayings linked to the victim's sexual orientation.

"There has definitely been a huge spike. I don't think anybody knows why," Wilchins said.

Many of the incidents that have captured headlines this year — from the February shooting death of a gay teenager at his Southern California middle school to this month's slaying of a Brooklyn man who was fatally beaten while walking arm-and-arm with his brother — fit Wilchins' profile.

Larry King, the 15-year-old shot by a classmate, wore feminine clothing and makeup. Jose Sucuzhanay, 31, was beaten with a baseball bat in Brooklyn and kicked by three men who jumped out of a car yelling anti-gay and anti-Hispanic slurs.

Car had rainbow gay pride sticker
The unidentified woman who was sexually assaulted in Richmond on Dec. 13 also was jumped by a group. Detectives say she was attacked after she got out of her car, which bore a rainbow gay pride sticker.

After one of the four men struck her, the group dragged the woman into the street, assaulted her, forced her back into her car and took her to a burned-out apartment building, where she was raped again. Authorities are still searching for the suspects.

The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, a network of organizations working to address gay-related violence, has tracked numerous other anti-gay crimes this year. They include the deaths of transgender women in Tennessee and Colorado; an arson that destroyed the home of a 65-year-old gay man in New York, and a spate of street beatings in Seattle's gay district.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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