Dancing the "Down-Low"

Only three minutes ago I hopped off the commuter train in Oakland, California, and already I'm in the middle of a conversation with a cute, young, athletic looking African American man named Khalil who wants to know what I'm "doing around here so late."

I tell him I'm visiting from New York and on my way to a nearby gay club called Cabel's Reef. "Oh, word, you're headed to Cabel's? I'm actually on my way over to this safe-sex party up on 30th Street. You can do your thing there and also meet all the heads on the low -- wanna come?"

"Actually, I'll pass."

"Oh, yeah, it's all good. I mean, it's not like I'm gay or anything bro, I'm just on the low, know what I mean? I have a girl back home, but I'm just out doing me on the D.L. I'm just trying to live."

African American men who are on the D.L., "down-low," have sex with men unbeknownst to their girlfriends (if they have one) and families. They don't consider themselves gay, and they identify with hip-hop despite the music's homophobia. They've been a source of controversy in the black community.

Black Entertainment Television ran an entire special on the "growing" presence of D.L.s, complete with "how-to-know" guides for black women questioning their man's sexuality. A recent episode of "E.R." featured an HIV-positive D.L. brother who "risked" infecting his girlfriend. The black literary world is rife with D.L characters, subplots and sensibilities. Author James Earl Hardy's" B-Boy Blues" and "The Day Eazy-E Died" got things started. E. Lynn Harris' series -- "Invisible Life," "Just as I am" and "Any Way the Wind Blows" -- is still insanely popular.

The controversy swings from seeing the D.L. brother as the primary spreader of AIDS in the "mainstream" black community to an insistence that they "come out of the closet" so they can be "out and proud." But as the brother at the train station told me, he was out, but in a new kind of way. Moreover, he was going to get his groove on at the sex party, safely.

Behind these AIDS fears lies the heterosexist assumption that AIDS is born and bred in gay communities and then venomously spread outward. Much of the anti-D.L. rhetoric from the black media hides the painful fact that many straight black women and men are HIV-positive and spread the disease among themselves, without any help from "evil" gay black men.

D.L. brothers are often no more insecure about their sexuality than anyone else. They've just embraced a low-key, mellow style that lets them admit to same-sex desires without necessarily coming out in the traditional sense. They "come out" as D.L.

D.L. is also about celebrating a hip-hop sensibility, as seen most clearly in the small, vibrant gay black scene in places like Oakland and Hayward, California. Here, D.L. brothers, homo-thugs, out lesbians and gays mix and mingle. It's a place of possibility.

The scene revolves almost exclusively around two popular nightclubs in these two towns: Cabel's Reef, sandwiched between a Korean restaurant and a beauty salon in Oakland, and "Rimshot" at Club Rumors, sitting neatly between two appliance stores in downtown Hayward.

Unlike New York's gender- and type-specific gay black scene, at Cabel's and Rimshot, demarcations among queens, lesbians, or D.L. brothers don't seem to exist -- folks just come together to get their groove on to the DJ's hip-hop and R&B beats. People actually dance; in New York they stand around staring at each other, waiting for the next available piece. There's something special about black bodies, rhythms and sounds filling these West Coast spaces, even while gayness may be under siege in the larger community.

With a 30-year history, Cabel's is the longest-operating, consistently black, same-gender-loving venue in the Bay Area. Fridays at Cabel's is by far the hottest night. DJ Mike spins the beats to a mostly hip-hop oriented crowd decked in urban fashions such as Sean Jean, FUBU, Mecca and Ecko. Homo-thugs, D.L. bois and roughnecks bounce to the sounds of Ludacris, Bone Crusher and 50 Cent.

Many of the men partying all night on Saturday at Cabel's or Rimshot can be found in church on Sunday morning. That's no surprise, for Cabel's on Saturday is a kind of church itself. One performer, Candice, serves fierce gospel renditions to a packed room of queens who re-configure the traditional black church experience. Shirley Caesar's "God Made Me Who I Am," never seemed so appropriate until sung by a Christian, black drag-queen.

In moments like these, it makes little difference if you're a D.L. brother, lipstick lesbian, weave-wearing drag queen or a journalist. It's about sweating it out to the beat and learning how to "catch the spirit" -- a spirit of community, sexual fluidity and self-respect nurtured by a gay, black, hip-hop culture in this devastating age of AIDS.

PNS contributor Frank Leon Roberts (flr207@nyu.edu), 20, is a student, writer, and activist from New York City and a contributing writer for YO! Youth Outlook, a magazine by and for San Francisco Bay Area youth.

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