Silver Rights

News, thoughts and comments on civil rights and related issues.

Wednesday, June 30, 2004  

Reading: Essence revisits the Down Low

I last wrote about the Down Low phenonenom in August.

Commenters at Blogcritics have brought my attention to a new controversy involving 'brothers on the Down Low.' The phrase refers to African-American men who have sex with other men while pretending to be heterosexual. They may also be sexually involved with women. Down Lows are often held responsible for the epidemic of HIV infection among African-Americans, though disproportionate use of intravenous drugs also plays a part.

It is time to go there, again.

Though men of all races and ethnicities engage in secret homosexual activity, the topic has become of particular interest in the black community because more than 70 percent of women diagnosed with new cases of HIV infection in the United States are African-American. A magazine whose target demographic is black women published a roundtable discussion, titled "Passing for Straight," this month. Essence selected Lynn Harris, a gay writer of popular novels about bisexual men, to host the roundtable. Four of the six men invited to share their stories showed up. In their 20s and 30s, they say they are comfortable with having sexual relationships with both men and women. The consensus is that women are responsible for protecting themselves from HIV infection by monitoring their sexual partners and insisting on the use of condoms. The article also features the stories of two women who fell in love with men on the Down Low.

Harris offers some perspective on the issue over the years.

If you think brothers who have sex with men in secret are part of some new fad that will soon pass, consider this: It was more than 30 years ago when I met my first down-low brother. He was a handsome high-school football star, and I was the skinny kid who couldn’t believe my good fortune when our paths crossed one summer evening in Little Rock, Arkansas. For months afterward our every move was cloaked in secrecy. He made it clear that I was not to mention knowing him, much less what we did when we managed to find time alone.

When he decided to end the affair to pursue his future wife, I was left with my first broken heart. Still I never breathed a word of our relationship to anyone. When I saw him in public I looked the other way, and I never called him, even when I longed for his voice. In those days before AIDS, his attitude was that what his girlfriend didn’t know couldn’t hurt her.

That might have been true then, but with large numbers of African-American women being diagnosed with HIV — 72 percent of all new female cases — the situation has changed. Women’s lives today depend on their knowing who’s sleeping with whom.

The question of whether there is more hidden homosexual sexual activity by straight men or whether the secret is just not so secret anymore is an open one. Though there is more honesty about being gay among exclusively homosexual men, it isn't clear that men who want to reserve the opportunity to sleep with other men and women are equally forthcoming.

Having been there and done that, Harris tries to offer insight into the thinking of men on the Down Low.

But why are so many of them on the down low? The truth is that most brothers who are attracted to men are desperately afraid of revealing it. Given the burden of racism they already carry, the last thing they want is to add yet another stigma to their lives. Many also fear that if they reveal this aspect of themselves, they’ll be drummed out of their families, destroying their only safe haven in an already unwelcoming society. So they act out their attraction in out-of-the-way places where they won’t be seen.

Read the complete discussion in this month's issue of Essence. And, plan to pick up a copy next month. There will be a second piece about the Down Low.

posted by J. | 10:45 PM