The Madness Continues

Almost three years ago, I posted an article from the Washington Post which highlighted the problem of men on the down-low in the black community. And now, it looks like the madness continues. As such, I continue to urge all men, — black, white, whatever your racial background — to really try and be honest with yourself and your chosen partners. In an age of AIDS and God knows what else, no woman should have to deal with such a secret from her partner.

Get Out of My Closet: Can you be white and “on the Down Low?”
By Benoit Denizet-Lewis
Slate, Posted Friday, Aug. 11, 2006, at 3:29 PM ET
Three years ago, I wrote a story about black men who have sex with men but don’t identify as gay—or even, in many cases, as bisexual. Instead, they adopted the label Down Low and formed a vibrant but secretive subculture of DL parties, DL Internet chat rooms (Thugs4Thugs, DLBrothas), and DL sex cruising areas (parks, bathhouses). Some of the Down Low guys I met were married but had covert sex with men, while others who claimed the label only had sex with men but considered themselves much too masculine to be gay. Most equated gayness with effeminacy—and, to a lesser extent, whiteness. From their perspective, to be an effeminate black man (a “punk,” a “faggot”) is to not really be a black man at all.
The Down Low was a relatively new response to a very old behavior. Men of all races have long had secret sexual and romantic male relationships, complete with the usual accessories of a double life: lies, deception, and shame. But the Down Low was a uniquely African-American creation. If the closet is a stifling, lonely place for white guys who realize they’re gay but aren’t ready to admit it publicly, the Down Low is a VIP party for “masculine” black men who will never admit to being homosexual—because they don’t see themselves that way. And while men on the DL certainly have their share of shame, among themselves it masquerades as bravado and sexual freedom: They’re the ultimate pimps and players, man enough to do their girlfriend on Thursday and do their best friend, Mike, on Friday. And until 2003, most black women didn’t have a clue.
But then I wrote my story, J.L. King published his memoir (On the Down Low), Oprah turned King’s book into a best seller, and Law & Order devoted an episode to the subculture. The Down Low quickly ceased to be, well, on the down low. And now, in a sure sign of the DL’s cultural currency, white boys—apparently unsatisfied with having co-opted hip-hop—are claiming to be on the “Down Low,” too.

I knew nothing of this until two months ago, when I met my first white guy who claimed to be “on the DL.” He was 24, tall, masculine, attractive, and said “bro” a lot. I met him at a New York City gay club (he had made the trek from Long Island), and I’m embarrassed to say that we sort of hit it off. On the first of a few dates, I asked him where he worked—and whether people there knew he was gay.
“Bro,” he said, “I’m on the Down Low.”
“Dude,” I said, “You’re white. You can’t be on the Down Low!”
“Bro,” he said. “All kinds of white people are saying they’re on the Down Low now.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I protested. “Why don’t you just say you’re in the closet?”
“Because the closet sounds stupid,” he said.
I wasn’t sure I believed him, so a few days later I went searching on Craigslist, and, sure enough, I found dozens of ads from white men claiming to be on the Down Low. In Boston, where I live, I saw an ad for a 38-year-old “slightly stocky, hairy and kinky bi married white guy on the down low.” In New York City, a 29-year-old Italian looking to “take care of a nice guy” who is “kool and looking for some fun” wrote that he needed someone discreet because he’s on the Down Low. In the San Francisco Bay Area, a 25-year-old “white boy on the down low” posted that he was looking to “chill with the same.”
(Interestingly, white guys also use the expression as an adjective—as in, “I have a down-low place” to hook up, or “I need Down-Low Head.” By far the most common usage, though, is some variation of, “We need to keep this on the Down Low,” meaning that if you happen to bump into your hookup around town, you won’t bear hug him and shriek, “Bro, last night was awesome!”)
Keith Boykin, the author of Beyond the Down Low: Sex, Lies, and Denial in Black America, told me he isn’t surprised that white men are co-opting the expression. “It’s become trendy to be on the DL,” he says. “It has always had an appeal because it refers less to sexuality than it does to masculinity. It’s an alluring term for men who identify as butch or masculine. The closet has a certain shame and weakness attached to it. The Down Low sounds more powerful, more empowering. It also sounds like a secret group, or club.”
Maybe so, but white guys claiming to be on the DL is a little like two straight roommates pretending to be domestic partners so they can save on health insurance. While white guys want the perceived benefits of being on the Down Low (being seen as cool, tough, and masculine), they certainly don’t want the unenviable choices facing many black men attracted to other men. For all their supposed freedom and masculine power and independence, black men on Down Low are stuck: “Come out” as anything other than heterosexual and suddenly they’re a double minority, likely to be ostracized by their friends, family, and church. (Black men still have less economic mobility than whites, making their community connections all the more critical.) Don’t come out and live a secretive, dishonest, compartmentalized—but, in some ways, safer—life on the DL.
”We know there are black gay rappers, black gay athletes, but they’re all on the DL,” Rakeem, a black gay man from Atlanta, told me three years ago when I interviewed him for my Down Low story. “If you’re white, you can come out as an openly gay skier or actor or whatever. It might hurt you some, but it’s not like if you’re black and gay, because then it’s like you’ve let down the whole black community, black women, black history, black pride.”
I called Rakeem recently to ask him what he thought about white guys claiming to be on the Down Low. “Are you really asking to me to explain the behavior of white dudes?” he said, laughing. “I’m not even going to try.” Next I called Jimmy Hester, a white former music executive and an expert on the Down Low. “What haven’t white people stolen from black culture?” he said. “But seriously, it’s incredibly sad that there are still millions of men of every color living in the closet, or on the Down Low, or whatever they want to call it. I say, let’s retire the Down Low. It should be extinct, like a dinosaur. It’s 2006, and people need to free themselves.”

6 Comments
  1. As such, I continue to urge all men, — black, white, whatever your racial background — to really try and be honest with yourself and your chosen partners. In an age of AIDS and God knows what else, no woman should have to deal with such a secret from her partner.

    THANK YOU.

    Unfortunately, honesty among this set is elusive — even when they’re outed. And being enabled by their “friends” (who really aren’t) doesn’t help.

    As a woman who had the recent misfortune of dealing with this and who, still, is dealing with the residual effects I maintain that (for me) the issue was less the sexuality than the blatant dishonesty and utter lack of respect for me, my body, my health, my emotions and my ability to choose whether I wanted to be involved at all with a man who has sex with men. He knew he was having sex with men the night he met me — he’s been doing it for more than 10 years and hasn’t stopped and doesn’t intend to. Yet I know for a fact that he has continued to lie to his family and friends about it and continues to pursue relationships with women while failing to disclose this fact about himself.

    Homophobia and heterosexism are very real issues in our society but in my experience the selfishness and cowardice of the man trumped that. And I think that’s true in many if not most “down low” scenarios, regardless of race and ethnicity.

  2. From reading both of your blogs, I became aware of the situation in which you found yourself. And without taking sides or commenting publicly in great detail since I have not done so privately, let me say that I am quite sympathetic to your pain. Furthermore, I do agree that for any relationship to survive and thrive, honesty needs to be a top priority. Without that, the relationship is doomed.

  3. I appreciate your comments. And without “taking sides” I do hope you’ll appreciate that drastic, extraordinary circumstances sometimes produce drastic, extraordinary responses. I know where I stand and why, and I stand by it. I tend to believe that getting to the truth no matter the means — particularly when dealing with someone as committed to deception as he was (and still is) — is the most important thing.

    For me the victory is surviving, finding a path to healing, forgiving myself and living well. And not keeping silent about something that women absolutely should be warned about. The “shame” is not mine or any other woman’s — the shame is in the perpetrator’s lies.

  4. I don’t think you have anything to be ashamed about. However, having experienced a similar betrayal of trust (thankfully not of the sexual kind), I’ve come to realize that as painful as it may be, once you realize that your significant other has been deceptive and continues to do so even after being confronted with hard evidence, the only thing to do is remove yourself from the relationship – particularly if honesty is part of your core values.

    Furthermore, it is best to try at all cost not to beat one’s self up too much for getting involved in the first place or ignoring any potential warning signs. In addition, as emotional and painful as the situation may be, think twice before exposing the other person’s web of lies to their family and friends — particularly since it is not going to take your hurt away. In fact, it will undoubtedly distract from the real issue at hand and just cause additional pain that will prolong the recovery process. Thus, in the long run it will be better to focus on one’s self and let the other person come to terms on their own time with their own reality — even though their selfish behavior has been quite hurtful.

  5. You’re right, and again, thanks.

    This issue (and him, obviously) are sore points only when brought up, but life really is good for me right now. Lots of good things happening personally and professionally. And you know what? I don’t have double bags under my eyes. I can sleep at night. I am not drinking myself to death. I don’t keep enablers around me. I don’t have to buy friendships. I don’t have to keep up with a lot of half-truths and flat out lies. I am not deluding myself about anything. I’m not confused about who I am. My conscience is clear. I look good and I feel good, and everyone in my life can see it.

    That’s the flip side of the story that I think women who’ve found themselves in this situation need to hear: Despite all the ugliness that arises, you can and will survive and thrive. You’ll be better. And you’ll have a powerful testimony to share with others.

  6. I am glad to hear that you have reached a point where you can focus on the positive aspects of what for all purposes was a negative experience. Without that, we would end up being in a constant state of victimhood and that is not who we are as women. Thus despite our challenges and setbacks (large and small), we have to acknowledge that everything happens for a reason. More imporatantly, after every personal or professional failure, a new relationship or opportunity is waiting to be taken advantage of. It may take time, but it will be there for the taking. Thus, the challenge is to learn from our mistakes and not let them hold us back so that we do not miss out on all the good things that are in store for us. I know, easier said than done, but that is what makes our life journey so interesting.

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