By Nate Raymond
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Gay and civil rights activists gathered in downtown Brooklyn on Thursday to condemn the prosecution of the chief executive officer and six employees of male escort website Rentboy.com for promoting prostitution.
About 50 protesters gathered outside the federal court where charges are pending against Rentboy.com CEO Jeffrey Hurant and the employees, who were arrested last week as authorities seized the website, which marketed to gay men.
The case has prompted outrage among some gay rights activists, who questioned why prosecutors are only now targeting the service after it had operated transparently for nearly two decades.
"This was an updated, digitalized raid, just like Stonewall," said protester and gay rights activist Allen Roskoff, referring to a Greenwich Village bar popular among gay customers that was raided in 1969.
Protesters held signs saying "Eyes off our private lives" and chanted "Stop the persecution, stop the prosecution" as they demanded charges be dropped and sex work be decriminalized.
A spokeswoman for Brooklyn Acting U.S. Attorney Kelly Currie declined to comment.
Established in 1996, Rentboy.com became what authorities say was the largest online male escort website, and even hosted an annual escorts awards show called the Hookies.
The website carried disclaimers saying its advertisements for escorts were for companionship and not sexual services. But authorities now say Rentboy.com was intended primarily to promote prostitution.
Critics of the arrests include The New York Times, which in an editorial last Friday said prosecutors had not justified shutting down "a company that provided sex workers with a safer alternative to street walking or relying on pimps."
Other defendants include Shane Lukas, Rentboy.com's chief operating officer, Michael Belman, its marketing director; sales agents Clint Calero and Diana Mattos; Edward Estanol, a former social media coordinator; and Marco Decker, an accountant.
The case was announced a week after Lambda Legal and four other gay and transgender rights groups joined a call by Amnesty International to decriminalize sex work, which they said would help protect participants from harm or exploitation.
Khaalid Walls, a spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which was involved in the probe, said "any insinuation that a specific population was targeted is categorically false."