The Down Low Returns
By Keith Boykin, in sexuality
Friday, April 16 2004, 1:28AM
Just when you thought it was safe to read the paper again, the decade's most overhyped story on black sexuality returns. No, the media are not breaking down stereotypes by showing black gay and lesbian couples who are in healthy relationships. No, they're not explaining the false choice that suggests all blacks are straight and all gays are white. No, they're not educating us about how to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. Instead, they're talking about the secret, underground, clandestine, mysterious (take your pick) lifestyle of black men on the DL. The down low is back!
The down low is a term used to describe black men who have sex with men but do not identify as gay. The term entered the media lexicon about three years ago as a sexy and sexual explanation for the spread of HIV among straight black women.
The news stories first appeared in the winter of 2001 and peaked again in spring 2002. Then the story dropped off the front pages for more than a year. Last summer, the New York Times Magazine ran a controversial cover story about men on the down low. In the 21 years I've been reading the magazine, I don't ever remember a single cover story about black gay men and AIDS. But now the down low is back in fashion for the spring 2004 collection.
Today Oprah delves into the down low with an entire show about the topic. Last week, New York Times reporter Linda Villarosa wrote about the down low in the Times. Comedian Mo'Nique is featured on the front page of a recent special edition of POZ magazine talking about the down low. Even the television show Law and Order aired an entire episode about the down low recently. The down low is definitely back.
What's driving this new frenzy of down low media scrutiny? Has the CDC released new data about the down low? No. Has anyone been able to prove that men on the down low are primarily responsible for the spread of HIV among black women? No. Then what's going here, and why now?
Sadly, it's mostly about money. Next month, Doubleday is about to release a new book on the down low by author J.L. King, a former down low brother himself. King will also be one of the featured guests on Oprah today. With the help of the media, King has become the posterboy for the down low.
While the rest of America is debating whether gays and lesbians should have the freedom to marry, black gay and bisexual men, thanks to the down low, are reduced to pathologies and predators. No one writes about our relationships, our heartbreaks, our love. That's not interesting.
Sanctimonious black ministers beat us down every Sunday at church. Angry black women condemn us. And the black media portray us as lying, cocksucking, disease-spreading villains.
And yet, our self-esteem is so low that we're proud just to be mentioned by the media. I can't tell you how many emails and phone calls I've received the past two weeks about Oprah's show on the down low. It's as if black gay men feel that we've finally made it to the big leagues.
Yes, we've made it all right. We've made it to the point where we are public enemy number one to the black community. That's hardly a reason for celebration.
It's fine if publishers want to use all their tools to sell their books, but do we have to misdirect resources in responding to a legitimate public health crisis in the process? Do we have to mislead the public to educate it?
Many of our sisters seem to understand what's going on. Interviewed by POZ recently, Mo'Nique was wise enough to explain why down low men exist. "They're on the down low because nobody's talking to them," she said. "We can't deal with the honesty. We want to be lied to."
Problems With The DL Story
There are many problems with the down low story, but the major problem is that it's based on the principle of vilifying the very people we need to reach. Demonizing people who have already been stigmatized into silence will not end their silence. Instead, we will drive these men further and further into their closets of shame and denial.
Then there's the problem of personal responsibility. Blaming the spread of HIV on men on the DL completely misses the point. Each of us is individually responsible for our own sexual behavior.
We can't blame our man for lying to us if we're not using protection on our own. But the DL phenomenon discourages black women from exercising personal autonomy. To the extent that we can point our fingers at someone else, we implicitly exculpate ourselves from responsibility. Thus, straight black women are portrayed as innocent while closeted black gay and bisexual men are portrayed as guilty without anyone attempting to understanding how to lift their burdens.
Here's another part of the story that doesn't get told. The down low is not new. Men have been having sex with other men since the beginning of time. The term "gay" is a 20th century construction, so no men identified as such before the 1900s. All men who engaged in homosexual behavior throughout history would be on the down low by today's standards.
When Oprah asks King how he can tell who is on the down low, he tells her, "we do it by the eyes...I could make a connection in this room." I don't know why that's news, but where I come from they call it "gaydar," and it's so yesterday.
Neither is the down low specific to blacks. White, Asian and Latino men also have sex with other men but don't identify as gay. And by the way, not all men on the down low are HIV positive. The assumption that men on the DL are spreading the HIV virus to black women is based on another assumption that all these DL men are infected with HIV.
Moreover, men on the DL who are HIV positive are just as "victimized" by HIV as the black women who contract the disease from them. But there's still another problem in the discussion because there's no conclusive evidence that men on the DL are responsible for the rise in HIV infections among black women.
Sheryl Johnson, a community outreach organizer who appears on the show today, told the Atlanta Daily World that she was concerned about the emphasis on the down low. "Oprah's a powerful woman a lot of people listen to. She could have done a lot to spread some important information and save some lives, but she chose to focus on what I think is a rather sensational book," Johnson said.
Fortunately, Phill Wilson of the Black AIDS Institute will also appear on the show. But Oprah's decision to do the show at all gives credibility to a theory that's lacking in evidence.
We do know this. Black gay and bisexual men have been living with HIV and dying of AIDS for almost a quarter of a century now. The HIV infection rates for this group are the highest in the country. But the media and the black community have never treated this crisis with the same energy now devoted to "the DL threat" to straight black women.
If we seriously care about the spread of HIV, we can't isolate our concern and efforts on one segment of the community and ignore another. We have to create a climate of love instead of fear, where black men who have sex with men are not stigmatized by the church, the media, their families and their friends.
In fact, the whole DL mythology at some level acknowledges the struggle of the black man on the down low. He doesn't identify with the white gay community, and he's not accepted by the black community, so he goes underground and creates a secret fraternity of sex partners.
But if that's true, then our solutions are way off base. If we accept the premise that black homosexuality is that difficult, then why not break down those barriers? Why not use the media to portray the black gay and bisexual men who are out of the closet, living openly in their relationships, and who have reconciled their careers, their families and their faith with their sexuality.
If it's really har