Remixing the Closet

The Down-Low Way of Knowledge

In the narrative of the closet that's dominated the gay movement since the late 1960s, men are supposed to be full of self-loathing about their secret sexuality until they emerge into the public like fluttering butterflies or strutting peacocks. But DL offers a new-school remix of the old-school closet, an improvisation on the coming-out narrative that imagines a low-key way of being in the world.

For some DL men, there is no "gay" essence to reveal, or a bisexual or straight one, for that matter. They may oscillate between male and female partners, but it would be a mistake to call such a brother a closeted bisexual, since it would imply that underneath the veil he's settled on a stable gender identity. DL is not an identity but a performance. It may even be working toward that elusive phenomenon hip-hop heads call "flow." Flow is when the MC locks his rapping into a groove, bringing the performance to a rhythmic, surging sense of balance.

Bernard Jones, owner of FreakDawg Productions, a black gay adult-entertainment company, notes that he's "seeing more people who just completely defy any category of sexuality. One of the models I work with is not hard, he's not soft, he's not effeminate, he's not thuggish. He likes men, he likes women, he's about to have a daughter, loves to be fucked, and plays with dildos. He's clearly someone who flows across a spectrum of sexuality and gender."

TruDawg, "the notorious homothug," raps about DL life over a house music beat.
photo: Louri lyons/Maverick Arts
TruDawg, "the notorious homothug," raps about DL life over a house music beat.


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Kelvin, a middle-class friend of mine, has always had a penchant for hip-hop. He's been openly gay to his family and co-workers for some time. But several years ago he discovered that he could disguise his identity and meet self-professed thugs in online chat rooms. So he began the process of coming out for a second time, as DL. Kelvin would lose the suit and tie and don Rocawear lounge suits, and he began to grow cornrows. He'd break into ebonics and deepen his voice into a Barry White basso profundo when chatting on the phone with other "thugs." In arguments, Kelvin called me "bourgie" while insisting he was keeping it "ghetto." He stopped hanging out in queer-identified spaces and events, and opted for more anonymous venues popular among the DL crowd: sex parties, subway platforms, parks, and darkened clubs.

Unlike the traditional closet narrative, where men are in isolation, DL brothers tend to be relatively open about their sexuality—if only to each other—but under the radar. Creeping is not the same as being invisible.

Creeping on the down low, besides being rough on the knees, is high-maintenance work. But it often has a social end. For Kelvin, being on the DL became an elaborate drag show to "get in the door," to meet and hook up with other hip-hop-identified guys he wouldn't likely encounter otherwise. Weeks into developing a relationship with a fellow "thug," Kelvin would drop the thug patina and become "himself," shedding the hip-hop gear and phony accent around his new friend. In most cases, the revelation seemed to cause no harm to the relationship.

Dressing up in campy thug gear would seem to deflate the original impulse to be undercover. But it's a strategy that often makes sense for MSMs trying to carve out space in hip-hop culture. There are few opportunities for such brothers to meet. At a time when homo-panic crimes like the recent beating of a gay man at Morehouse College are all too common, playing at being a thug may also be an important way for some MSMs of color to simply stay alive.

José Esteban Muñoz, author of Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics, notes, "We are so used to white masculinity setting the standard for the closet. Now when we talk about it in relation to communities of color, it's not so much about the single man on a subway; it's about a network of men who recognize each other as DL, and they have this new concept or word to describe it that isn't the closet. It's a way of projecting out a bunch of likes and dislikes, a code of the way you experience the world in relationship to desire and sexuality."

By equating extreme visibility with power, the gay movement manufactured a one-size-fits-all model for coming out. This tribal identity may have suited the politics of its time, but it left little room for folks to improvise and personalize. Hip-hop offers a new model, based on the recognition that a song can be riffed into many recombinant possibilities. DL's immense popularity suggests that a new generation is remixing the pride agenda.

Whether they pass as playas, blend into the skateboard scene, or live by critic Mark Simpson's concept of the "metrosexual"—a low-key, urban gent more likely to identify as a shopaholic than a gay man—young people of every race and class are responding to something in the air. It may seem like a retrenchment—and in some ways, it is—but their demand for self-determination extends a core value in gay liberation. Will the movement acknowledge the rap at the door?

Jason King teaches hip-hop and popular music at New York University's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music.

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