Last season on the hit television series Law and Order, a young, “straight-acting” African-American male from a black neighborhood stood trial for the murder of a gay white man with whom he seemed to have no connection. The twist in this story was that the white man had threatened to reveal his sexual relationship with the black man if the latter wouldn’t come out as gay on his own—and found himself dead.
Sounds like a typical scenario for an episode of a TV drama, but there’s more truth in this story than many viewers may realize. In a new book that’s stirring up controversy in the often homophobic black community, On the Down Low, author J. L. King draws from his personal experience to bring this hidden world to light. King wrote the book because he wants the black community to better understand what its own anti-gay stereotypes are doing to many of its fathers, brothers, and sons. The Down Low—“the DL”—exists because being openly gay is unacceptable in the black urban community, so men engage in sexual relations in secret while maintaining heterosexual relationships for public consumption. Above all, black men on the DL do not think of themselves, much less present themselves to others, as gay.
The Down Low itself is far from welcome in the black community, because most blacks see their men in specific ways that are incompatible with this lifestyle. Based on images drawn from Hollywood or hip-hop videos, black men are allowed to be suave like Denzel Washington or LL Cool J, tough like 50 Cent or Dr. Dre, or streetwise like the countless young men in way-too-baggy jeans and oversized basketball jerseys. But black men are not allowed to display the slightest feminine behavior or the characteristics of today’s “metrosexual.” When most black people think about gays or feminine men, they think of someone like RuPaul. They refuse to believe that men who look like rapper DMX or who play professional basketball or who live next door could be homosexual or even bisexual.
As King observes in his book: “Gay is white. … In Chicago you can’t be black and gay on the South Side. You can’t live in your community. You can’t go to church. You can’t join a fraternity. You can be black, or you can move out.” Which is why the young man on trial in that episode of Law and Order was living on the DL. The phrase “Down Low” was popularized a few years ago by R. Kelly in his song, “Down Low (Nobody Has to Know).” Sexual relationships with other men are never discussed or openly acknowledged—a situation that the term “down low” nicely captures.
These men’s unwillingness to address the fact that they may be gay or bisexual leads many to engage in unprotected sex when on the DL. To use a condom would be to acknowledge in some way what one is actually doing. And, given the whole nature of the DL, men involved in these activities are not about to disclose them to their female partners. This is clearly a factor in the high rate of new HIV cases in the African-American community, especially among black women. A growing number of public health officials believe that men on the DL who have unprotected sex with other men pose a health risk to their girlfriends and wives. While African-American men account for about 49 percent of new HIV cases among all U.S. men, African-American women comprise fully 72 percent of all new female cases, of which the vast majority (77 percent) were infected by black men. (Blacks constitute about thirteen percent of the U.S. population.)
I spoke with a number of black men on the DL to understand their mindset. One thing I discovered is that most young black men think they’re invincible and need no protection from HIV. When told the grim statistics about HIV infection rates, more than one accused me of making this up. There’s a distrust of the medical establishment on the part of black men that probably dates all the way back to the Tuskegee experiment. But their skepticism also comes from living in a culture in which the message about HIV and safer sex has been largely directed to gay white men.
I am delighted to see more coverage of the DL in the mainstream media and hope this will save lives. The media, which have helped build and maintain stereotypes about black men and gays, could help destroy these depictions as well. With the exception of Oprah—who has been willing to present two strong black men in a committed relationship—most depictions are of effeminate, often cross-dressing, black men who live up to the stereotype. Also, given the importance of religion in African-American culture, I think it’s time for pastors—some of whom are themselves living on the DL—to start teaching tolerance and stop preaching damnation and hellfire for homosexuals.
Essence magazine ran a two-part piece on the DL last August called “Deadly Deception,” but I wonder if it didn’t do more harm than good. Instead of promoting awareness and tolerance for gays in black communities, this and similar pieces have sought to spread fear and suspicion toward people with different sexual patterns. What’s more, these articles tend to suggest that black men having sex with both men and women is a new phenomenon, which it is not. Meanwhile, the link between men on the Down Low and HIV creates a state of fear, betrayal, and confusion in the minds of black women, who are now on “red alert” to avoid all relationships with men who may possibly be bisexual.
If a man on the Down Low could settle into a community that was accepting of his lifestyle, that would be a start toward ending the secrecy of the DL. But the prevailing norms of black urban culture have made it incredibly difficult for a black man to come out of the closet and build a relationship with another man, and entrenched attitudes in the community make it hard to imagine this situation improving any time soon.
Jeffrey Lee Williams, Junior, is a freelance writer based in New York City.