A Down Low Dirty Shame
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Late in 2003, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study showing that black women accounted for 72 percent of all new HIV cases, and that they were most likely to contract the disease from heterosexual men. But additional data collected by the CDC also found that a "significant number" of black men who sleep with men identify as heterosexual, and that black women at risk "may not be aware of their male partners' possible risks for HIV infection such as...bisexuality."
While there have always been closeted gay men and men living so-called double lives, the supposed trend of black men who hide their homosexual encounters from unsuspecting wives and girlfriends -- termed "living on the down low" -- has recently blown up big.
In 1991, E. Lynn Harris published Invisible Life , a novel about a man on the DL who infects his girlfriend with HIV, and since then a smattering of articles on the topic have appeared, including a lengthy 2003 New York Times Magazine profile of the flourishing DL scene in Columbus, Ohio. It was in 2004, though, that mainstream forums from Oprah to The New York Times to Essence to the Advocate took on the topic in earnest; the subject even made it onto an episode of Law & Order . As a hot topic, the DL is tailor-made: Widespread publicizing of alarming disease statistics like the CDC's that all but confirm DL prevalence as the number-one reason black women contract AIDS, coupled with the timely emergence of a media-savvy DL poster boy and a generous sprinkling of Oprah's magic, have turned the down low into a downright phenomenon.
In April 2004, a convenient few months after the CDC's bombshell, Chicago native J.L. King released his first-person account of living on the DL. On the Down Low: A Journey into the Lives of "Straight" Black Men Who Sleep with Men not only positioned King -- who for years had been an anonymous source on the DL lifestyle for mainstream media -- as a bona fide expert, but inspired a full-blown media exploration of the trend. The book centers around King's jousts with men while he was married, and is peppered with CDC statistics and a dash of irresponsible assertions ("Women involved with DL men are being infected with HIV because these men do not believe in wearing condoms and they don't know their HIV status"). King also details how both his relationship with god and his concern for the type of man his daughter would marry led him to write the book, and then launches into flashback tales about sleeping with a married man from his church and hooking up with a (male) preacher.
King's tale of well-orchestrated deception, which quickly hit the bestseller list, was generally treated as a self-help book -- and accepted as gospel, despite the lack of statistical information to back up his pronouncements about seemingly straight black men. When, in April 2004, the Queen of Talk herself tried to get some concrete answers from King, he dodged even her. Discussing the "secret fraternity" of men who sleep with men, Oprah asked:
WINFREY: How big is this fraternity?
KING: This invisible population, if you just look at the numbers, if you look at 68 percent of all new cases, I'm even surprised sometimes when I meet a DL brother. It blows me away when a brother comes up to me or I find out that he's on the DL. We're like, "How-you're on the DL, too?
WINFREY: Well, how does one know who is and who isn't?
KING: We do it by the -- we do it by the eyes.
WINFREY: You do it by the eyes.
KING: We do it by the eyes. You know, I wrote a chapter about the signs.
WINFREY: Yes, you did. Yeah.
Though data from the American Journal of Public Health , among others, suggests that men of all ethnicities engage in DL sex, black men are the group most likely to live life on the down low. Because black men have been more marginalized in the economic, educational, and social spheres than other men, researchers say, they tend to be more hesitant to surrender what they may consider a crucial and defining element of their masculinity -- heterosexual sex -- by defining themselves as bisexual or homosexual. This behavior is nothing new, of course, but with the advent of HIV/AIDS it's taken on a different meaning.
In the '80s, as inner-city black neighborhoods were saturated with crack cocaine and President Reagan responded with a war on drugs, millions of young black men were sent to jail. It's suspected that, while serving harsh sentences, some men participated -- willingly or not -- in the don't-ask-don't-tell, sex-as-power-brokering culture of the prison-industrial complex. Since condoms aren't exactly placed on your pillow in the pen, it makes sense that at least some of the ubiquity of both DL behavior and HIV infection originated behind bars. Other significant contributing factors are the rampant--and for the most part accepted--homophobia in the black community, the overwhelming silence of most black churches around HIV and sexuality, and widespread misinformation about HIV.
But rather than use the troubling CDC statistics and memoirs like King's as a chance to open up a potentially painful yet necessary dialogue about race, sexuality, and behavior, the media, as usual, seized upon the most sensationalistic aspects of the issue. The news stories that erupted in the wake of King's book resembled slipshod tabloid journalism far more than they did serious exploration of a social phenomenon: In most of the stories, men engaging in DL sex weren't characterized as complex human beings, but as sexual culprits and perpetrators of bad behavior; the women in their lives were presented as innocent pawns. The structure and substance of many articles centered around denial, the futility of prevention efforts, and the lack of sexual integrity in the black community. Many pieces focused on individual women who were shocked to discover, upon having blood rejected at the blood bank or being turned down for health insurance, that they had contracted HIV from their men. A lengthy 2003 Orlando Sentinel piece is a prime example: It profiled a woman who discovered she was HIV-positive during a blood test to determine her eligibility as a bone-marrow donor. When she realized she had contracted the virus from her husband, she became suicidal. The article suggested that the woman's husband was both a drug addict and on the down low. Though the article stated that the husband had no idea whether he'd contracted HIV from a man or a woman, the reporter went on to describe characteristic DL behavior in some detail. (Two weeks later, the paper ran a correction that would seem to nullify the whole story, saying the woman's husband had died in 1999 but had never tested positive for HIV.)
Many of these articles led with King's book, treating him as an HIV-prevention activist brave enough to come forward and tell his story. Taking their cues from King, journalists and TV producers pretty much agreed: Men on the DL--who were referred to mostly as "closeted bisexuals" and men who just had trouble coming out of the closet--were killing black women with their denial. "A New Kind of Brotherly Love" read one newspaper headline. Not juicy enough? USA Today got more specific, even if it missed the whole point: "The danger of living 'down low': Black men who hide their bisexuality can put women at risk." A two-part series in Essence was titled "Deadly Deception." It was never clear, in these dozens of stories, whether the coverage was geared toward getting black women informed or simply preventing legions of men who have sex with men from ever telling the truth to anyone.
Still, a handful of publications--including Newsweek, ColorLines, and the Village Voice -- turned out sensitive and respectable articles of their own on the subject, noting that many of King's claims were unsubstantiated. An April 2004 New York Times article profiled a group of black women who'd seen a musical about men on the DL and explored their resulting sense of urgency about it. Other pieces, including one in the Denver Westword , examined HIV-prevention classes or ways that information about the DL was changing the way black women felt about relationships.
The ColorLines article was one of the few to be penned by an out bisexual black man, without a pseudonym. In it, Juba Kalamka, a member of the queer hip hop group Deep Dickollective, shared a refreshingly astute view of black identity and sexuality:
While gay and straight white academic communities and the popular media continued to engage in rote, inflammatory, sensational and racist demonizing of black sexuality, the black community, gay and straight, has not been able to get a handle on the discussion either. This failure is largely due to the dynamic overlap of homophobia and class privilege that has stunted most discussions of the way unchallenged patriarchy and sexism are integral to the experience of those on the DL and those they may infect.
Kalamka's article underscored two questions largely ignored in all the media coverage: Why hasn't the black community shed the idea of HIV as a gay white man's cross to bear, and why, even though blacks get the disease at a rate 11 times that of whites, do many still feel invincible in the face of it?
It's reasonable to conclude that the majority of media outlets aren't concerned with constructing a nuanced, ongoing dialogue about black sexuality and American culture. "It's just so irresistible for the press to have something to say about black men that is in some way demeaning or embarrassing," says Brenda Wade, a San Francisco-based psychologist and host of local TV show Black Renaissance . "One, it's about sex. But two, it's about the myth of the black man as a stud being blown apart. So people are saying, 'Ah ha! A lot of them are actually gay men.'" Black men--already vilified in the media and canonized in pop culture as immoral thugs, sexually insatiable mandingos, and big scary bogeymen--are easy targets when it comes to sensationalism. When those same black men are declared to be disease-infested vectors, the result is a psychoanalyst's playground. Wade, who wrote a practitioner's response to King's book for Black Issues Book Review , was one of the few levelheaded voices to emerge amidst the hysteria. She suggested that black folks simply grow up, so that we can talk frankly about sexuality instead of sending men deeper into the closet.
What is lacking in all this coverage, according to Phill Wilson, executive director of the Black AIDS Institute in Los Angeles, is a real story, with real facts and numbers. Apart from Gary Dorsey's June 2004 article in the Baltimore Sun , which expressed some ambivalence about the tangible connection between the DL and HIV-infection rates in women, and the extent to which DL men were to blame for black women contracting the disease, few people have asked the important question: Just how many men are we talking about here? "No one has quantified this phenomenon," says Wilson. "We don't know if it's a big deal or a little deal; we don't know if it's 100 percent of black men or 1 percent of black men. And no one has done any research to ascertain whether men on the DL are indeed having unsafe sex with their male partners."
But lack of evidence hasn't stopped some publications from enhancing their arguments with shoddy reporting. Jet erroneously reported that 60 percent of black men who were having sex with newly infected black women were living on the DL. The New York Times Magazine article about the DL scene in Columbus, Ohio, devoted just two paragraphs to a connection between the DL and HIV in black women, and the statistics the reporter cited raise more questions than they answer:
While intravenous drug use is a large part of the problem, experts say that the leading cause of H.I.V. in black men is homosexual sex (some of which takes place in prison, where blacks disproportionately outnumber whites). According to the Centers for Disease Control, one-third of young urban black men who have sex with men in this country are H.I.V.-positive, and 90 percent of those are unaware of their infection.
The most troubling aspect of the DL media frenzy is that it places the blame directly on men who sleep with men for a burden that is too big for any one group to carry. Can we be certain that black women are not contracting HIV by willingly having unprotected sex with genuinely heterosexual men? If women are socially programmed to have sex without insisting on condoms, whose fault is that? Instead of asking the hard questions, many articles have stuck to the same old easy-to-regurgitate story: Black men will do anything--even kill--for sex.
Still, there's hope for a more thoughtful exploration of black sexuality than what's been presented thus. During the otherwise tepid vice-presidential debates of 2004, moderator Gwen Ifill asked candidates Cheney and Edwards to comment on the government's role in ending the AIDS epidemic in the U.S., specifically mentioning the high rates of HIV infection among black women. Predictably enough, neither was familiar with the statistics Ifill cited, and neither had an intelligent response. But it did give debate commentators a chance to present the DL as one of many factors related to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of black people from AIDS. And just this February, Keith Boykin published Beyond the Down Low: Sex, Lies, and Denial in Black America , which could bring some balance to what has been a very one-dimensional story.
Meanwhile, J.L. King plans to publish a new book later this year about the overwhelming response to his memoir, which he says sold over 200,000 copies. When asked about his first book and its exaggerations of the scope of the DL phenomenon as well as its connection to HIV and AIDS in black women, he responds, "I tell people to do their own research and find out what's going on in their state and go to the Centers for Disease Control. Don't take my word for it, I'm an activist, not a health educator. I'm just telling my story."
Joshunda Sanders is an Oakland-based writer and a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.