The Low-down on the Down Low



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.


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Discussion1 Comment

  1. It’s a man name Dameion Washington he plans to change his last name to his fathers…born 1/1/1977 he’s a cr!p and was in prison for over 20 years… I got with him but was reluctant to let him penetrate me because I was scared of the fact that he was gay reguardless if him being light skinned and very fit and very muscular with “hated by many loved by few respected by all on his back and blood sweat and tears and deeply rooted by all”… so we ended up parting ways because I moved from the transitional housing we were living in he was super sweet at first but then got violent especially because he was pressuring me to have s3x and even though we weren’t he was making it seem like to every one he could that we were… so in a bit she’ll I found out he was chilling with a tranny and I went to the page because I was like oh damn my intuition can’t be right please just let him be a messed up individual and not actually gay. Sure enough I checked out his/her insta it said ts mafia in the profile… and I went to face book someone was calling the girl Erica “Eric” and it was obviously a tranny and so she/he (the tranny) posted a pic of him/her in his room at the program. I was like oh damn…. They thought oh your just mad cause he don’t want you… um bruh is gay. Don’t no body want no man that’s gone leave and not just fk other women but the “homeboys” too… I googled his instagram name and he was on a page called “femboyheaven” and it was a very feminine thick gay boy and he liked the pic and said “damn baby I want you” in the comments… so I said let me see if it gets worse… I cat fished him on a dating app I know he used pretended to be a 16 year old and he was willing to fk with what he thought was a child. He lied and said I had his password and I did it but it’s like if we broke up and you were a good person I wouldn’t lie on you like this… it’s not that everyone will even believe it but what I would like any type of spiritual woman with self love and value to not allow lust to cloud your judgement and to test the spirits because it’s dangerous I don’t know about his health but that’s how black women catch hiv and aids as well luckily I never had sex with him. It is crazy how far a narcissit will go and how well they lie and can get everyone to believe your crazy or your the one responsible for THIER actions… I believe everyone deserves to know when a man is not only gay but a pedo…Phile…. Please be careful with this one… once you figure him out it can get bad. He put his hands on me as well… I should’ve called the cops but you know I don’t do that… blessings and peace be upon all…

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