Sex talk
Speaking of Down Low

Simon Sheppard,

It's nothing new to be "in the closet," hiding one's queerness from the world at large. And neither is having a "beard" – a girlfriend or wife who serves as cover. But lately, sexual duplicity's been labeled "being on the down low," a term with racial overtones and a particularly dangerous twist.

"The down low," or "DL," is a term derived from R&B; music, where it meant any illicit relationship. It's now widely used to describe nonhetero African Americans leading a closeted life. One student of queer folkways observes, "Many black communities – with their emphasis on traditional masculinity and their focus on the church – haven't been very welcoming places for openly gay men." The pressure to appear straight has forced many queer black men to lead double lives, dating – even marrying – women while secretly going out and having sex with men. Often, the men involved don't define themselves as gay or even bisexual. As the gay observer notes, "The racism of some gay whites, coupled with the sexism of some African Americans, has resulted in the widespread notion that an openly gay identity is somehow a whites-only thing."

In many towns, underground communities have grown up; groups of men have sex with one another, and then go back to outwardly heterosexual lives. Some of the guys on the down low are genuinely confused or questioning. Others are just deceitful. Using women as a front can eventually result in misery all around, and it isn't just dishonest. It can be deadly.

In the United States, the HIV epidemic has hit black people especially hard, and many of the women who get infected have partners who are on the DL. When down-low men use drugs or alcohol to lower inhibitions, things get even riskier. "These are men who are especially hard to reach," says an HIV-prevention worker. "They may be in denial about their risk, or just used to taking all kinds of chances. And they can't explain to their female partners why condoms are necessary."

The DL is far from a blacks-only phenomenon, of course. Whether it's a married white businessman hiring a hustler, or Latino teens fucking each other in secret, whether it occurs in Cairo, Egypt, or Cairo, Illinois, sexual deception knows few bounds. Even openly gay men can have their own versions of the down low, such as an ostensibly monogamous man going out and fucking around, then giving his unsuspecting boyfriend an STD.

"It would be unfortunate to stigmatize black men," says the prevention worker. "The point is to keep people healthy, not to cast blame.�

Most men on the DL find themselves in an agonizing position, trapped between their own desires and society's sometimes-violent homophobia. It's no wonder they seek out other men like themselves, both as sex partners and to provide mutual support. As the prevention worker says, though, "There are always reasons why someone does what he does. But when it comes to putting other unsuspecting people at risk, the down-low guys are just plain wrong."

In an ideal world, we'd all feel free to be ourselves. But even in such relatively liberated zones as San Francisco or Amsterdam, there are still men who sneak around. One previously down-low guy says, "It took some courage, but now I'm honest about who I am. Still, some of my friends don't get it. I guess they think I should have a girlfriend. But the hell with that. I'm gay, and it feels great not to hide anymore."

Simon Sheppard is the author of Kinkorama: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Perversion

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