The Great Down-Low Debate

A New Black Sexual Identity May Be an Incubator for AIDS

In the meantime, the problem with gay identity for men like Tevin is that it disqualifies them for the Black Man identity they prefer. And since sexual liberation has robbed them of the right to simply slip off and "fuck the faggot," they've developed the DL.

Of course, DL is itself a way of organizing one's life around the common trait of sexual desires, complete with a unique language. Solicitors in personal ads and chat rooms signify degrees of authenticity with coded monikers such as "serious DL brotha" and "real roughneck nigga." The latter splinters off into the related but distinct "homo-thug" identity, which allows Pryor's faggot of today to still qualify for the violent conception of black masculinity popularized by gangsta rap.

But many unambiguously gay African Americans have responded to the DL and homo-thug trends by declaring these guys nothing more than repackaged closet cases. And they warn that the segmented lives such identities create are dangerous—both for the guy on the down low and his unsuspecting female partner. Tevin, like most DL men, has never told his girlfriend, with whom he lives and has a child, that he sleeps with men as well. He asserts his burgeoning affair with Jason in no way conflicts with his love for her, and that his concealment of it is thus not lying.

Tevin also says he always uses condoms. But even if so, is he an anomaly?

There's little research to determine how often black men eschewing sexual identity use protection with their male or female partners, but both the CDC and gay-identified blacks working in AIDS prevention point to the 2000 report for guidance. All of the men in that survey were positive, and many believe the respondents who called themselves straight help form an "HIV bridge" that is responsible for skyrocketing infection rates among both African American women and homosexual men. It's why, some gay activists say, public health needs to encourage DL brothers to be more honest with themselves and their lovers of either gender.

"You can't address the risk if you don't talk about the context in which it happens," sighs Timothy Benston, who coordinates Soul Food, a Gay Men's Health Crisis program that targets African Americans. "Black gay men lead schizophrenic lives."

If so, retort those in another corner of the intensifying debate, it's schizophrenia caused by "gayified" blacks trying to shove a white concept down the community's throat. "One of the assumptions gaymakes is that if you don't call yourself gay then you're in the closet," snaps Cleo Manago, an Oakland area AIDS activist who is a leader in the "Same Gender Loving" movement on the West Coast.

That movement aims to discard pink triangles and rainbow flags—symbols created by and for Europeans—and build a new identity around words and concepts created by and for black people. Among the first to go, Manago says, is the in and out of the closet dichotomy that serves only to emphasize separation from the larger community. "Instead of demanding that people respect you because of how you fuck, do something within the community," Manago rails.

And when it comes to HIV prevention, he says, the problem has been that the "old guard" black gays leading the effort "still pull a defiant gay anchor around," pushing an out-of-touch political agenda that alienates those they are trying to reach.

But gay activists respond that Manago is peddling a cultural relativism that should stop at the closet door. "Most people in our community are saying, 'Represent! Represent,' " pleads Maurice Franklin of Gay Men of African Descent. Franklin notes that he and others like him live and socialize as open gays in the black community. "It doesn't mean that we have to go out carrying rainbow flags," adds activist Keith Boykin. "But we do have to acknowledge sexual orientation."

Which is just fine with Tevin. And as for whether or not he's lying or repressed, and what it means for his and his partners' HIV risk, that's not his question to answer. "I don't feel like I'm pushing anything back," he claims. "I'm not saying how you choose to deal with your situation is wrong, but I'm good where I'm at."


GMAD will host a conference June 14-17 at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, to discuss HIV and black gay men. Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr. will be among the speakers. For more info, call 212-929-8750.

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