The Great Down-Low Debate

A New Black Sexual Identity May Be an Incubator for AIDS

Richard Pryor used to do a bit where he joked about his experiences "fucking the faggot." He wasn't declaring himself gay, far from it, and no one listening assumed as much. He was just admitting that he could get off by screwing another guy. Pryor made his living parading life's dirty little secrets onstage. In this case, the fact that a lot of black men "get with dudes," as we now say when being circumspect.

That was 1971, before identity came to America's bedrooms. While some black folks have since assumed our place in the gay rainbow, many have rejected sexual identity in favor of keeping Pryor's secret undercover. In a much discussed 2000 U.S. Centers for Disease Control survey, a quarter of black men who acknowledged that they have had sex with other men identified themselves as heterosexual, compared to around 6 percent of their white counterparts.

A more recent CDC study, released this February, has shoved these men under the microscope like never before. The report estimated that over 30 percent of twentysomething black "men who have sex with men," the CDC's deliberately neutral term, are HIV positive. It put the number at 33 percent in New York City, which is a higher rate of infection than in the general population of any sub-Saharan African country other than Botswana.

The study has left everyone trying to figure out why African American gay men seem uniquely immune to HIV prevention efforts. Increasingly, people believe the answers will be found only when we figure out what makes guys like Tevin (a fake name) tick. Born and raised in New York City, this self-assured 25-year-old is a portrait of the young, savvy urban black male. Dressed hip-hop casual—in a baggy sweater, khakis, and spotless white kicks; with his smooth, dark skin, tight goatee, and cornrows, Tevin is a lady's dream. But he's also the Don Juan fantasy of a certain group of men: guys who live "on the down low," or DL.

"I like girls. I have a girl," Tevin says with a smirking shrug. "But every once in a while, 'cause women can be very stressful, I might chill with a dude. And it's just having fun. If something pops off, it pops off. Give each other a pound and meet up later."

Tevin won't have anything to do with gay culture, doesn't know anything about it and couldn't care less. By and large, his thoughts on the subject are in lockstep with most of black America's: It's all good if it's your thing, but I ain't no punk.

Nor is Tevin willing to accept a sexual orientation. "I consider myself just sexual," he professes. "A freak!"

But this polished detachment doesn't quite veil a much more complicated set of emotions. The brother is in love. He met Jason (also a fake name) at a fight party eight months ago, and the two have been "in each other's face" ever since. Although they don't mess with other men, Tevin is quick to make it clear that doesn't mean they are "quote unquote dating." Still, there's a lot more popping off here than sex.

"It's crazy but, yeah, the feelings are strong," he admits.

Tevin's met guys in the past who have claimed to be "DL." But they always proved to be fakers and ended up acting queer. Jason's not like that. He has no interest in women, but he still flirts with them. He doesn't try to be affectionate with Tevin in public. And most important, he doesn't flame out.

"I think if you're a dude, you should act like a dude, look like a dude, talk like a dude. If you're a chick, you should act like a chick," Tevin explains. "When you start mixing 'em up, that makes me nervous. I wouldn't disrespect people who act like that, but it just turns me off."

This cult of masculinity is at the heart of being DL. Men like Tevin style themselves as prototypes of black manhood, and gender benders don't cast well in that role. Nathan Kerr, a gay Caribbean American whose Brooklyn marketing firm produces safe sex ads targeting DL men, says he's conducted focus groups where even flamboyantly feminine black men rejected the gay label because of its perceived weakness. "Gayness was seen as the whole sissy fag thing," he explains.

Feminist cultural critic bell hooks argues that this perceived conflict between gayness and black macho also underpins homophobia in the community today, and dates back to the Black Power movement of Pryor's years. For hooks, when Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver declared of his gay brother, "The white man has robbed him of his masculinity, castrated him in the center of his burning skull," it stuck.

Ironically, openly gay writer James Baldwin, Cleaver's primary target, was then—and for years remained—one of the movement's most vocal defenders. Baldwin even excused Cleaver's attack as the misguided defensiveness of a "zealous watchman" over blackness. But decades later, the watchman's words still echo through hip-hop culture. As Ice Cube has reminded us, "true niggas ain't gay."

This homophobia, argues hooks—whose latest book, Salvation, dissects what she sees as a communal "crisis of lovelessness"—is indicative of a larger discomfort with sexuality. "Black folks can't even talk in a healthy way about straight sex," hooks complains. "How are we going to talk about gay sex and s/m and bisexuality and so on?"

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