The Lie of Living “On the Down Low”

But men living on the DL is not a new phenomenon in the African-American community. Naming it, however, is.

Popular hit songs like TLC’s 1994 tune “Creep,” Brian McKnight’s 1995 song “On the Down Low,” and R. Kelly’s 1996 tune “Down Low (Nobody Has to Know)” all talked about the duplicitous lives of some African-American men. And nothing bolstered this issue more than Benoit Denizer-Lewis’ article “Double Lives on the Down Low” in the August 3, 2003, edition of The New York Times Magazine, and then national television exposure about it on “Oprah.”

But it was J.L. King who became the country’s poster boy by exposing the behavior in his best-seller, On The Down Low: A Journey into the Lives of “Straight” Black Men Who Sleep with Men.

His notoriety, however, came at the cost of his marriage. “My ex-husband, J.L. King . . . never apologized to what he did to me,” Brenda Stone Browder states in her book, On the Up and Up. “One Saturday night . . . I found myself in front of the television watching my ex-husband . . . tell the world that he was a man living on the down low, the whole CNN audience — which might as well have been the entire world — knew that my ex-husband cheated on me with men.”

DL may stand for “down low,”but for Chicagoan Gladys Overton, “the DL stands for black men just ‘damn lying.’” For Overton, the long-term effects of secrets and lies contributes to the alarming health crisis among African-American heterosexual women. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit health organization, African-American women account for 72 percent of all new HIV cases in women, and they are 23 times more likely to be infected with the virus than white women. What is also unnerving is that 67 percent of African-American women with HIV contracted it from heterosexual sex. And two ways that the virus is contracted heterosexually is through intravenous drug use and African-American men on the down low.

What is also unnerving is that 67 percent of African-American women with HIV contracted it from heterosexual sex. And two ways that the virus is contracted heterosexually is through intravenous drug use and African-American men on the down low.

“There are many women, too many women, in relationships with men who they think they know but really don’t. He knew he had the disease, his mother knew he had the disease, his doctors knew, everyone seemed to know except me. And no one said a word,” LaJoyce Brookshire wrote in the foreword of Browder’s book, herself author of Faith Under Fire: Betrayed by a Thing Called Love.

Studies have found that African Americans make up the majority of AIDS cases in the southern U.S. And the South also has the highest percentage of DL men infected with HIV/AIDS.

DL men come from all walks of life. For example, college students are being impacted. North Carolina health officials released a study in 2004 that found that of 84 percent of male college students infected with HIV in the state in the last four years, 73 percent were black. Of those black men, 67 percent said they had sex with men and 27 percent with female partners. Also alarming is that a higher percentage of African-American men over 50 are contracting the virus. With men taking Viagra and sleeping with younger women who unbeknownst to them have been with young DL men infected with the virus, the cycle is insidious.

And J.L. King himself had this to say at the National Conference on African-Americans and AIDS and Prevention last year: “I sleep with men, but I am not bisexual, and I am certainly not gay. I am not going to your clinics, I am not going to read your brochures, I am not going to get tested. I assure you that none of the brothers on the down low are paying the least bit of attention to what you say.”

Many African-American men on the DL say there are two salient features that contribute to their subculture — white gay culture and the Black Church. DL men deliberately segregate themselves from both black and white gay cultures as an alternative black masculinity that only wants to have sex and socialize with other black men. But class is a factor here, too. While many gay African-American men have the economic mobility to reside outside of the black community and are likely to intermingle with the dominant gay culture, most DL men don’t.

Many African-American men on the DL say there are two salient features that contribute to their subculture — white gay culture and the Black Church. DL men deliberately segregate themselves from both black and white gay cultures as an alternative black masculinity. . .

“They’ve created a community of their own, a cultural party where whites aren’t invited. Labeling yourself as DL is a way to disassociate from everything white and upper class. . . And that is a way for DL men to assert some power,” George Ayala, director of education for AIDS Project Los Angeles, told the Times in the 2003 article.

The Black Church’s gender ideology and sexual politics also contribute to this subculture. A study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life indicated that African-American churchgoers are the least likely of all faiths to support gay civil rights. The Forum also indicated that since 2000, black Protestants are less likely than other Protestant groups to believe that gays should have equal rights. For example, black Protestant support for gays dipped to a low of 40 percent last year, down from 65 percent in 1996 and 59 percent in 1992.

Not surprisingly, many of J.L. King’s partners were church men. “There are gospel conventions throughout the nation for churches. There is one for ushers, Sunday school departments, music departments and ministers. . . These events allow men to meet men and to have sex while away from their hometowns. Many midnight concerts turn into affairs where brothers are cruising each other. I’ve been there, seen it and done it,” King states in his book.

While homophobia and racism are factors that help contribute to this subculture of DL men, personal responsibility and an ethic of caring and accountabilty must also come into play. DL men’s love for themselves, black women and the entire community would best be exemplified by telling the truth. Brothers on the DL need to know that just as no lie can live forever, neither can their secrets.

Us Helping Us, People into Living Inc., an organization that works to reduce HIV infection in the African-American community, runs an anonymous DL telephone help line at 888.547.3235.

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