Joshunda Sanders

A Down Low Dirty Shame

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:

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