Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Revisiting the Down Low

A good discussion of the down low and the racialized sexualization of Black men by Marc Lamont Hill.

Down Low discourse is a matter of race and public health | TheLoop21.com

A few weeks ago, comedians DL Hughley and Sherri Shepherd came under fire for comments that they made on an episode of The View. While discussing the FDA’s ban on blood donation for gays and bisexual men, the two matter-of-factly mentioned that HIV was prevalent in the Black community because of the “Down Low,” or the sexual practices of bisexual men who identify to their partners (and themselves) as heterosexual. The comments sparked firestorm from gay advocacy and public health organizations, both of which rightly regarded the comments as bigoted and untrue.

My interest is not in criticizing Hughley and Shepherd, whose comments merely echoed the sentiments of many people in the Black community. Rather, my frustration is with the very notion of the Down Low, which rests upon a set of problematic assumptions and dangerous claims that undermine the physical and mental health of the community.

Despite what countless magazines, news outlets, and everyday people have reported as “fact,” there is no evidence that Down Low men are responsible for the spike in the HIV infection rates of African American women. To the contrary, according to the US Centers for Disease Control, high-risk heterosexual sex and injection drug use are actually the leading causes of infection for Black women. In fact, according to experts, incidents of female infection from bisexual male partners are relatively low. While more research needs to be done—particularly studies that deploy more complex methodologies for tracking the sexual practices and identities of bisexual men who don’t identify as such—there is absolutely no scientific basis for blaming HIV infection on DL men.
In addition to being empirically baseless, the current Down Low panic follows a long and deep history of framing Black males as immoral, diseased, and dangerous. Do “DL brothers” really exist? Of course. But they exist among every race and culture throughout history. (For evidence of this, check out the critically acclaimed movie Brokeback Mountain, which tells the story of a secret gay romance between two men in the American west from 1963 to 1983. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the film was not referred to as a “DL movie.”)  Despite this reality, only Black men seem to have their sexual practices policed and framed in pathological terms.


Consider, for example, when J.L. King released his sensationalistic tome “On The Down Low,” news outlets framed his appearance as a PSA for Black women everywhere. Based on King’s questionable personal story and unfounded scientific claims, the media sparked a seemingly endless conversation about “dangerous” Black men whose sexual mendacity was crippling the Black community by spreading HIV/AIDS.

This story stands in sharp contrast to that of former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevy, who was forced out of office in 2004 after it was revealed that he had a sexual affair with another men. In McGreevey’s case, the same media outlets that feigned outrage at King’s narrative of Black pathology treated the ordeal as an individual act of public truth telling. Although McGreevey’s book also detailed the back-door dealings of numerous closeted politicians and everyday husbands, the media’s focus remained exclusively on McGreevey’s own behavior rather than a signpost of a gay White epidemic. This type of disparate treatment speaks to the ways in which Down Low discourse has as much to do with race as it does public health.

In addition to dehumanizing Black men, the Down Low discourse also frames Black women as helpless victims rather than active agents in their own sexual health. While Black men certainly have a responsibility to be honest with themselves and their partners about their sexual identities and behavior, Black women also have a responsibility to ask tough questions, demand joint HIV testing, and insist on condoms. Obviously, none of this is fullproof, particularly when dealing with a dishonest partner. Still, any public health conversation that does not include these factors is both incomplete and dangerous.

In many ways, the Down Low conversation serves as a red herring that diverts our attention from the real issues related to sexual health in the Black community: homophobia. Until we come to terms with our own problematic relationship to the LGBT commmunity—I’m not saying that homophobia is unique or indigenous to the Black community, only that it exists—sexual secrecy will remain a prominent feature of Black culture life. Also, by framing HIV/AIDS solely as a crisis of Black women, we ignore the fact that gay Black men remain the most vulnerable population for infection. While this shift in focus may allay our sexual anxieties, they undermine productive attempts to stem the tide of infection and death in our community.
Marc Lamont Hill is Associate Professor of Education at Columbia University. He blogs regularly atMarcLamontHill.com. Email Marc at marc@theloop21.com. Follow him on Twitter @MarcLamontHill.