By Anna Merlan
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By Tessa Stuart
"Pride on THE DL." Those four words of colossal irony were printed across a flyer I was handed during the summer of 2001. It was an invitation to a hip-hop party for men of color, called Brooklyn Sensation. At the time, the media were in
a feeding frenzy over black and Latino MSMs (men who have sex with men) living "on the down low." In refusing to disclose their homosexual adventures to their female partners, these guys were being blamed for skyrocketing HIV rates in communities of color. The homothug had become the new millennium's stealth bisexual, hiding his "true" identity behind a Sean John hoodie.
This panic has created a whole industry of "experts" dishing out advice to straight women who want the real deal on what their men are doing behind closed doors. J.L. King offers lectures like "The Five Personality Types of DL Men" for up to $10,000 a pop. "Being on the DL is being in the closet about your sexual feelings for the same sex," King informed me in a recent interview. "When I hear the word 'closet,' I think it means to hide being gay and in the gay lifestyle." But the "PRIDE ON THE DL" party betrayed these assumptions. Why would undercover brothers want to openly celebrate being in the closet? The journalist in me couldn't resist hopping the 2 train to Brooklyn to find out.
Nobody let the dawgs out that night at Brooklyn Sensation. Instead, "PRIDE ON THE DL" brought out gaggles of flamboyant twentysomethings rocking the latest hip-hop gear, desperately trying to look tough. One petit guy sported a wifebeater that inched up his torso to disclose a pair of Hilfiger boxer shorts and a midriff Scorpion tattoo. The sweat on his powdered brow was held in check by a Fubu headband, and his mustard-colored oversize Timberlands weighed him down like a pair of gravity boots. With his swishy gait and lilting falsetto, this brother was a universe removed from the menacing homothug portrayed in the media.
"I call them thug princesses," says Lewis Nicholson, editor of Glamma magazine. "Even the voguing queens are now wearing their pants dropped off their ass, and they're claiming to be hard." Nicholson claims that such surreal scenes are becoming commonplace at DL parties and thug clubs across the country. A perusal of HX produced the following options for Gay Pride week: Thug Passion (named for the drink), Thugs4thugs, Erotic Fight Club (featuring "muscle thugs, escorts, DL playas, hoodlums, and wrestling in oil . . . men of color only!")and those are just the sex parties.
On his self-distributed debut EP The Notorious Homothug, TruDawg raps about a day in the DL life over a house music beat. A self-proclaimed SGL (same gender loving) rapper who calls himself "out and proud," TruDawg (Anthony Truly) has a day job as a fitness instructor, and he's bared it all in the gay porn rags. TruDawg uses the homothug label as a marketing tool, a way to get over. But open up the CD and you'll find an X-rated photo of TruDawg demonstrating the safest way to put on a condom. Rapping about homothugs is a way for him to save lives rather than sermonize.
If there's a DL community today, it's the result of this sort of brazen marketing. In the late 1980s, a group called A1BlackElite launched Bla-tino, a hugely popular series of sex parties thrown in secluded locations across the East Coast. Bla-tino's street-promo strategy targeted men who wouldn't otherwise fraternize at gay-identified clubs: "ruffnecks, barriboyboyz, thugs, popichulos, shortys, manchismos, brolic mutherfuckers, 'n your neighbor." The door policy rejected fats, femmes, and anyone sporting an "AIDS look." Implicit in this rhetoric was the fear of effeminacy, a terror that bubbles under the surface of epithets like faggot. This intense ambivalence about the visible signs of gayness is part and parcel of DL culture. Undercover guys strive to be unclockable: undetectable.
In the wake of parties like Courvoisier Urban Thug Night, this ambition has become more like an ironic pose. Guys who call themselves incognitos, playas, real nikkas, thug bottoms, and pretty thugs fill online chat rooms to maximum capacity. These men are advertising their DL status. Nicholson finds such a contradiction hard to swallow. "Once you start putting thugs' faces all over billboards, it's no longer down low," he says. "People in Atlanta have begun to refer to DL as Dick Lovers."
Living on the down low is not new. Working-class and poor MSMs of color have always had to be low-key about their sexual preference, since they haven't had the same access to the safety nets that exist for white and middle-class men. But calling yourself DLa term popularized in the 1990s in the presumably heterosexual lyrics of performers like TLC and R. Kellyhas become a way for some black men to admit they like guys without resorting to words like gay, bisexual, or queer.
Some men on the DL are true hardcore thugs who might rob you or do whatever it is that real thugs are supposed to do. But DL parties suggest that that many hip-hop-identified MSMs, even the most flaming ones or those who don't sleep with women, are rejecting classic identities in favor of simply coming out as "undercover"despite the ambivalence and irony that underlie that strategy.