Down-low is an African American slang term that typically refers to a subculture of black men who usually identify as heterosexual, but who have sex with men; some avoid sharing this information even if they have female sexual partner(s), they are married, or they are single. The term is also used to refer to a related sexual identity. Down-low has been viewed as "a type of impression management that some of the informants use to present themselves in a manner that is consistent with perceived norms about masculine attribute, attitudes, and behavior".
According to a study published in the Journal of Bisexuality, "[t]he Down Low is a lifestyle predominately practiced by young, urban [b]lack men who have sex with other men and women, yet do not identify as gay or bisexual".
In this context, "being on the Down Low" is more than just men having sex with men in secret, or a variant of closeted homosexuality or bisexuality—it is a sexual identity that is, at least partly, defined by its "cult of masculinity" and its rejection of what is perceived as white culture (including white LGBT culture) and terms. A 2003 New York Times Magazine cover story on the Down Low phenomenon explains that the black community sees "homosexuality as a white man's perversion." It then goes on to describe the Down Low culture as follows:
Rejecting a gay culture they perceive as white and effeminate, many black men have settled on a new identity, with its own vocabulary and customs and its own name: Down Low. There have always been men – black and white – who have had secret sexual lives with men. But the creation of an organized, underground subculture largely made up of black men who otherwise live straight lives is a phenomenon of the last decade. ... Most date or marry women and engage sexually with men they meet only in anonymous settings like bathhouses and parks or through the Internet. Many of these men are young and from the inner city, where they live in a hypermasculine thug culture. Other DL men form romantic relationships with men and may even be peripheral participants in mainstream gay culture, all unknown to their colleagues and families. Most DL men identify themselves not as gay or bisexual but first and foremost as black. To them, as to many blacks, that equates to being inherently masculine.
Context and American sub-cultures
In his book Beyond the Down Low: Sex, Lies and Denial in Black America, Keith Boykin states that secret homosexual relations are not unique to African American men, and in fact occur in many societies and among all races.
In "Power Plays, Power Works" John Fiske suggests that closeted homosexuality may be more common in American communities suffering from widespread poverty, in which members reportedly depend heavily on traditional family networks (and often religious institutions) for financial and emotional support.
The term quickly became conflated with an eroticism of black and Latino homosexual activity. Throughout the gay porn industry and internet networks, "down-low" quickly became a marketing term used to publicize pornographic movies, models, sex-clubs and social gatherings that included black and Latino men.
The first known person to use "down-low" in a homosexual context was George Hanna, who used the term in the 1930 song Boy in the Boat about lesbian women. The term was popularized in the late 1990s and after by a series of mainstream media reports emphasizing the danger of such men transmitting HIV to their unsuspecting female partners.
The first mainstream media account of the down-low as closeted homosexuality was reported in the Los Angeles Times on February 7, 2001. By the end of the year, numerous major media outlets had reported on the down-low. They included The New York Times (11 February), USA Today (March 15), Columbus Dispatch (March 19), St. Louis Post-Dispatch (April 1), New York Times (April 3), Chicago Sun-Times (April 22), Atlanta Journal-Constitution (June 3), San Francisco Chronicle (June 4), Village Voice (June 6), VIBE magazine (July), Jet magazine (September 8), Essence magazine (October), San Diego Union-Tribune (December 2), and Los Angeles Times (December 7). Nearly all these stories connected the down-low to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the African-American community.
In the summer of 2003, Village Voice contributing writer and NYU professor Jason King published "Remixing the Closet: The Down Low Way of Knowledge", in the newspaper's June 2003 "Queer Issue," a controversial op-ed piece that questioned the relationship between HIV/AIDS and men "on the down low". The article was the first mainstream piece to openly criticize negative mainstream media depictions of down-low men and put a different spin on the DL phenomenon.
King argued that the use of the term "down low" was a way for many African American men to admit to having sex with other men without necessarily identifying as "gay" in the traditional sense. On the heels of that article, San Francisco Chronicle contributing writer Frank Leon Roberts published "Stereotypes and Sexual Orientation: The 'down-low' – Coming out your own way in black clubs" in the newspaper's July 23, 2003 issue.
Then in August 2003 the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story called "Double Lives on the Down Low", written by Benoit Denizet-Lewis. Several episodes of The Oprah Winfrey Show were also dedicated to the subject including an episode aired 16 April 2004 and titled A Secret Sex World: Living on the 'Down Low' ; the show featured J. L. King discussing his book On the Down Low: A Journey Into the Lives of Straight Black Men Who Sleep with Men. The down-low was also part of story lines on episodes of the television shows Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Homicide Hunter, The Starter Wife, ER, and Oz.
In 2003 Jeffrey Q. McCune, Jr. wrote a full-length play entitled Dancin the Down Low that he directed and produced at Northwestern University in April 2004. In addition, McCune has dedicated a dissertation on this topic. His study examines DL discourses closely, while also exploring how DL men handle masculinity and sexuality.
In 2008, writer Terrance Dean published his memoir, Hiding in Hip-Hop: On the Down Low in the Entertainment Industry—from Music to Hollywood, where he discusses his own experience being down-low in the industry as well as others in the industry who are also down-low. He distinguishes the difference between being down-low and being down-low-gay. Someone who is down-low is on the receiving end of homosexual sexual pleasure and for that reason does not view themselves as gay, while down-low-gay is someone who is a closeted gay man.
Using a content analysis of more than 170 articles written between 2001 and 2006, sociologist Richard N. Pitt, Jr. concluded that the media pathologized black bisexual men's behavior while either ignoring or sympathizing with white bisexual men's similar actions. He argued that the "down-low" black bisexual is often described negatively as a duplicitous heterosexual man whose behaviors threaten the black community. Alternatively, the "Brokeback" white bisexual (when seen as bisexual at all) is often described in pitying language as a victimized homosexual man who is forced into the closet by the heterosexist society around him.
Men who have sex with both men and women are a "significant bridge for HIV to women," a CDC study suggested. The CDC's Young Men's Survey shows that about one in 10 men reporting sex with men also have sex with women. And more than one in four of these bisexual men have unsafe sex with both kinds of partners. "Men who also have sex with women have similar levels of HIV and STDs [as exclusively homosexual men] and higher levels of many risky behaviors."
A study by Glenn and Spieldenner uses the CDC as a source to report the following:
"This issue continues to be stigmatized and connected to HIV/AIDS research, particularly how it connects to risky sexual practices influencing its transmission to partners, controversies regarding social awareness and acceptance of Black male sexuality, as well as disclosure or nondisclosure of those practices and behaviors."
The CDC report that analyzes the above-mentioned survey states that "many men who have sex with men (MSM), especially young and minority MSM, do not disclose their sexual orientation" in order to avoid "social isolation, discrimination, or verbal or physical abuse." The report connects non-disclosure to an increased risk of HIV by stating: "Young MSM who do not disclose their sexual orientation (nondisclosers) are thought to be at particularly high risk for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection because of low self-esteem, depression, or lack of peer support and prevention services that are available to MSM who are more open about their sexuality (disclosers)."
The CDC added a note to their report stating, in part:
"The findings in this report are consistent with previous research suggesting that among MSM, nondisclosure of sexual orientation is associated with being a member of a racial/ethnic minority group, identifying as bisexual or heterosexual, having greater perceived community and internalized homophobia, and being less integrated socially within homosexual communities (1—3,6). Although this study did not find that nondisclosing MSM were at higher risk for HIV infection than MSM who are more open about their sexuality (1—3), the data suggests that a substantial proportion of nondisclosers are infected with HIV and other STDs and are at high risk for transmitting these infections to their male and female sex partners.
The finding that more than one in three nondisclosers reported having recent female sex partners suggests that nondisclosing MSM might have an important role in HIV/STD transmission to women. This might be particularly true for black nondisclosing MSM, of whom approximately one in five was infected with HBV and one in seven was infected with HIV."
The CDC cited three findings that relate to African-American men who operate on the down-low (engage in MSM activity but don't disclose to others):
- African American men who have sex with men (MSM), but who do not disclose their sexual orientation (nondisclosers), have a high prevalence of HIV infection (14%); nearly three times higher than nondisclosing MSMs of all other races/ethnicities combined (5%).
- Confirming previous research, the study of 5,589 MSM, aged 15–29 years, in six U.S. cities found that African American MSM were more likely not to disclose their sexual orientation compared with white MSM (18% vs. 8%).
- HIV-infected nondisclosers were less likely to know their HIV status (98% were unaware of their infection compared with 75% of HIV-positive disclosers), and more likely to have had recent female sex partners.
In Beyond the Down Low, Keith Boykin denied this connection, attributing the media claim to sexism, racism, homophobia and classism. Boykin stated that despite the numerous media accounts linking the down-low to the occurrence of AIDS in the African-American community, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has never cited men on the down-low as a factor. Boykin claimed that no extensive research has ever been published about men on the down-low, in part because of the difficulty of identifying the targeted population. In his book, Beyond The Down Low: Sex, Lies and Denial in Black America, he wrote that men on the 'down-low' are not the cause of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in black America. Boykin argued that the down-low debate demonizes black men, stigmatizes black women, and encourages an unhealthy "battle of the sexes" that distracts the community's attention from the issues of HIV prevention, personal responsibility and condom use.
The authors of a study of the down-low on Craigslist.org also argue that the discourse about the down-low is about pathologizing black sexualities. These authors found that white men also claim to be on the down-low as much as black men; however, society and the media still only attributes the down-low to black people and their sexual behaviors. The authors maintain that by only focusing on black people's sexual behaviors, larger structural issues such as poverty and drug use are ignored in the discussion about rising HIV rates in certain black communities.
A cross-study analysis that reviewed 24 articles (and published in the Journal of the National Medical Association) found that "black MSM are more likely than MSM of other racial or ethnic groups to be bisexually active or identified; and, compared with white MSM, are less likely to disclose their bisexual or homosexual activities to others." The authors concluded that:
"The high prevalence of HIV in the black community and the greater likelihood of bisexuality among black men place heterosexual black women at risk for HIV infection. However, the contribution of high-risk heterosexual black men to the rising HIV caseload among black women has been largely ignored. Future research must evaluate the relative contributions of bisexual men and exclusively heterosexual black men to HIV cases among black women."
Additionally, a qualitative study, published in the Medical Anthropological Quarterly, concluded that:
"... covert and unprotected sex among bisexually active black men was commonplace for reasons that included prostitution, habituation to same-sex relations during incarceration, and the desire to maintain a facade of heterosexuality in homophobic communities. It was concluded that bisexual activity is highly correlated with secrecy and unprotected sex. The risks of bisexuality among black men are exacerbated by incarceration, homophobia, drug use, and the prison and public health focus on surveillance rather than prevention."
Black bodies in the glass closet
In Nobody Is Supposed to Know: Black Sexuality on the Down Low (2014), scholar C. Riley Snorton contends that black sexuality operates within the glass closet, a space "marked by hypervisibility and confinement, spectacle, and speculation." Down-low men have been subjected to demonization and criminalization by the media, health officials, as well as the general public, especially during the early to mid-2000s. This type of hypervisibility reinforces the confining space of the glass closet, and continues to position black men as subjects of regulation and surveillance. Therefore black masculinity is perceived as "dangerous, prone to trickery, promiscuous, and contaminated while also framing white masculinity and sexuality as less susceptible to such problems." The glass closet represents the immobility of black bodies and sexuality. Down-low men are racialized, sexualized, gendered, and classed.
The (meta)physics of the glass closet are like the physical properties of glass, sometimes liquid and sometimes solid, located in the slippages of categorization. If we understand the closet as a racialized metaphor, then we must fully consider what it means when black bodies enter the illuminating space of the closet. It resembles the phenomenon of peering into a lit window at night—the contents inside captured by the glass frame.
Despite the hypervisibility of the glass closet, there is still potential for the performative tactic which Snorton calls "ignorance". This ignorance "relies on the subversion of knowledge and a deft manipulation of spectacle." Thus, the glass closet can also function as a space of willful invisibility for down-low black men.
- Green, Jonathon (2006). Cassell's Dictionary of Slang. Sterling Publishing. p. 893. ISBN 978-0-304-36636-1. Retrieved 2008-03-19.
down low n. [1990s+] (US Black) a state of secrecy. down low adj. [1990s+] (US Black) covert, secret (i.e. keeping a low profile)
- King, J.L.; Courtney Carreras (April 25, 2006). "Coming Up from the Down Low: The Journey to Acceptance, Healing and Honest Love". Three Rivers Press. p. 36. Archived from the original on August 18, 2010. Retrieved 2009-12-18.
- Johnson, Jason (1 May 2005). "Secret gay encounters of black men could be raising women's infection rate". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2009-12-18.
- Mutua, Athena (September 28, 2006). Progressive Black Masculinities. Routledge. p. 169. ISBN 978-0-415-97687-9. Retrieved 2009-12-18.
- Bennett, Jessica (May 19, 2008). "Outing Hip-Hop". Newsweek. Retrieved 2009-12-19.
- Wolitski, Richard J.; Jones, Kenneth T.; Wasserman, Jill L.; Smith, Jennifer C. (12 May 2006). "Self-Identification as 'Down Low' Among Men Who Have Sex with Men (MSM) from 12 US Cities". AIDS and Behavior. 10 (5): 519–529. doi:10.1007/s10461-006-9095-5. PMID 16691462. S2CID 36992684.
- Fields, Errol Lamont (2009). Racial identity, masculinity and homosexuality in the lives of young Black men who have sex with men: Implications for HIV risk (Thesis). p. 203. ProQuest 304913731.
- "CDC > African American > Resoucers > Q&A: Men on the Down Low". Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Archived from the original on 2008-07-06. Retrieved 2008-07-18.
- Heath, Jessie; Kathy Goggin (January 2009). "Attitudes Towards Male Homosexuality, Bisexuality, and the Down Low Lifestyle: Demographic Differences and HIV Implications". Journal of Bisexuality. 9 (1): 17–31. doi:10.1080/15299710802659997. S2CID 143995029.
- Denizet-Lewis, Benoit (August 3, 2003). "Double Lives On The Down Low". The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-04-26.
- Wright, Kaimeans (June 5, 2001). "The Great Down-Low Debate: A New Black Sexual Identity May Be an Incubator for AIDS". The Village Voice. Retrieved 2008-03-19.
- "Sex, lies and the "down low"". Salon.com. August 16, 2004. Archived from the original on March 7, 2008. Retrieved 2009-12-18.
- Boykin, Keith (2006). Beyond the Down Low: Sex, Lies, and Denial in Black America. Carroll & Graf Publishers. p. 17. ISBN 978-0-7867-1704-0. Retrieved 2008-03-12.
down-low all races.
- Fiske, John (1993). Power Plays, Power Works. Verso. p. 211. ISBN 978-0-86091-616-1. Retrieved 2008-03-12.
- Boykin, Keith (2006). Beyond the Down Low: Sex, Lies, and Denial in Black America. Carroll & Graf Publishers. p. 172. ISBN 978-0-7867-1704-0. Retrieved 2008-03-18.
down-low all races.
- Wright, Michelle; Antje Schuhmann (2007). Blackness and Sexualities. LIT Verlag Berlin-Hamburg-Münster. ISBN 978-3-8258-9693-5. Retrieved 2008-03-19.
- "Remixing the Closet: The Down Low Way of Knowledge" Archived November 6, 2006, at the Wayback Machine. June 2003, www.villagevoice.com
- "Stereotypes and Sexual Orientation: The 'down-low' – Coming out your own way in black clubs" Archived September 9, 2005, at the Wayback Machine. July 23, 2003, www.aegis.com
- "The Oprah Winfrey Show: A Secret Sex World: Living on the 'Down Low'". Harpo Inc. April 16, 2004. Retrieved 2008-03-19.
- Romero, Frances (2008-05-15). "Guess Who's Gay in Hip-Hop". Time. ISSN 0040-781X. Retrieved 2016-12-22.
- Pitt, Richard N. (31 July 2016). "Downlow Mountain? De/Stigmatizing Bisexuality through Pitying and Pejorative Discourses in Media". The Journal of Men's Studies. 14 (2): 254–258. doi:10.1177/106082650601400203. S2CID 151467272.
- "HIV's Bisexual Bridge to Women". Webmd.com. 2004-07-13. Retrieved 2013-12-04.
- Glenn, Cerise (September 2013). "An Intersectional Analysis of Television Narratives of African American Women with African American Men on 'the Down Low'" (PDF). Sexuality & Culture. Springer Science & Business Media B.V. 17 (3): 401–416. doi:10.1007/s12119-013-9189-y. S2CID 143745079.
- "HIV/STD Risks in Young Men Who Have Sex with Men Who Do Not Disclose Their Sexual Orientation --- Six U.S. Cities, 1994—2000". CDC: US Center for Disease Control and Prevention. February 7, 2003. Retrieved 2009-10-31. Cite journal requires
- "CDC: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report". CDC: US Center for Disease Control and Prevention. February 7, 2003. Archived from the original on October 5, 2009. Retrieved 2009-10-31. Cite journal requires
- Boykin, Keith (2006). Beyond the Down Low: Sex, Lies, and Denial in Black America. Carroll & Graf Publishers. p. 173. ISBN 978-0-7867-1704-0. Retrieved 2008-03-12.
down-low all races.
- Robinson, Brandon Andrew; Vidal-Ortiz, Salvador (March 2013). "Displacing the Dominant 'Down Low' Discourse: Deviance, Same-Sex Desire, and Craigslist.org". Deviant Behavior. 34 (3): 224–241. doi:10.1080/01639625.2012.726174. S2CID 145693197.
- Millett, Gregorio; Malebranche, David; Mason, Byron; Spikes, Pilgrim (2005). "Focusing 'down low': bisexual black men, HIV risk and heterosexual transmission". Journal of the National Medical Association. 97 (7 Suppl): 52S–59S. PMC 2640641. PMID 16080458.
- Lichtenstein, Bronwen (September 2000). "Secret Encounters: Black Men, Bisexuality, and AIDS in Alabama". Medical Anthropology Quarterly. 14 (3): 374–393. doi:10.1525/maq.2000.14.3.374. JSTOR 649504. PMID 11036584.
- Snorton, C. Riley (2014). Nobody Is Supposed to Know. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. p. 4.
- Snorton, C. Riley (2014). Nobody Is Supposed to Know. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. p. 9.
- Snorton, C. Riley (2014). Nobody Is Supposed to Know. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. p. 16.
- Snorton, C. Riley (2014). Nobody Is Supposed to Know. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. p. 32.
- Dean, Terrance (2008). Hiding in Hip-Hop: On the Down Low in the Entertainment Industry—from Music to Hollywood. New York, NY: Atria Books. ISBN 978-1416553403.
- Boykin, Keith (2005). Beyond The Down Low. Avalon. ISBN 0-7867-1434-4.
- King, J.L. (2004). On the Down Low. Broadway. ISBN 0-7679-1398-1.
- Williams, Jeffrey Lee Jr. (2004). The Low-down on the Down Low. The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide., 11(6), 6.
- Hubbard, Thomas K. (2003). Homosexuality in Greece and Rome. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-23430-8.
- Roberts, Frank Leon (2003). The 'down-low' – Coming out your own way in black clubs. San Francisco Chronicle., July 24, 2003.
- Williams, Craig A. (1999). Roman Homosexuality : Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-512505-3.
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