The Great Down-Low Debate


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?”

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 gay makes 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.