> Double Lives on the Down Low
> > August 3, 2003
> > By BENOIT DENIZET-LEWIS
> > In its upper stories, the Flex bathhouse in Cleveland feels
> > like a squash club for backslapping businessmen. There's a
> > large gym with free weights and exercise machines on the
> > third floor. In the common area, on the main floor, men in
> > towels lounge on couches and watch CNN on big-screen TV's.
> > In the basement, the mood is different: the TV's are tuned
> > to porn, and the dimly lighted hallways buzz with sexual
> > energy. A naked black man reclines on a sling in a room
> > called ''the dungeon play area.'' Along a hallway lined
> > with lockers, black men eye each other as they walk by in
> > towels. In small rooms nearby, some men are having sex.
> > Others are napping.
> > There are two bathhouses in Cleveland. On the city's
> > predominantly white West Side, Club Cleveland -- which
> > opened in 1965 and recently settled into a modern
> > 15,000-square-foot space -- attracts many white and openly
> > gay men. Flex is on the East Side, and it serves a mostly
> > black and Hispanic clientele, many of whom don't consider
> > themselves gay. (Flex recently shut its doors temporarily
> > while it relocates.)
> > I go to Flex one night to meet Ricardo Wallace, an
> > African-American outreach worker for the AIDS Task Force of
> > Cleveland who comes here twice a month to test men for
> > H.I.V. I eventually find him sitting alone on a twin-size
> > bed in a small room on the main floor. Next to him on the
> > bed are a dozen unopened condoms and several oral
> > H.I.V.-testing kits.
> > Twenty years ago, Wallace came here for fun. He was 22
> > then, and AIDS seemed to kill only gay white men in San
> > Francisco and New York. Wallace and the other black men who
> > frequented Flex in the early 80's worried just about being
> > spotted walking in the front door.
> > Today, while there are black men who are openly gay, it
> > seems that the majority of those having sex with men still
> > lead secret lives, products of a black culture that deems
> > masculinity and fatherhood as a black man's primary
> > responsibility -- and homosexuality as a white man's
> > perversion. And while Flex now offers baskets of condoms
> > and lubricant, Wallace says that many of the club's patrons
> > still don't use them.
> > Wallace ticks off the grim statistics: blacks make up only
> > 12 percent of the population in America, but they account
> > for half of all new reported H.I.V. infections. While
> > intravenous drug use is a large part of the problem,
> > experts say that the leading cause of H.I.V. in black men
> > is homosexual sex (some of which takes place in prison,
> > where blacks disproportionately outnumber whites).
> > According to the Centers for Disease Control, one-third of
> > young urban black men who have sex with men in this country
> > are H.I.V.-positive, and 90 percent of those are unaware of
> > their infection.
> > We don't hear much about this aspect of the epidemic,
> > mostly because the two communities most directly affected
> > by it -- the black and gay communities -- have spent the
> > better part of two decades eyeing each other through a haze
> > of denial or studied disinterest. For African-Americans,
> > facing and addressing the black AIDS crisis would require>
> > talking honestly and compassionately about homosexuality --
> > and that has proved remarkably difficult, whether it be in
> > black churches, in black organizations or on inner-city
> > playgrounds. The mainstream gay world, for its part, has
> > spent 20 years largely fighting the epidemic among white,
> > openly gay men, showing little sustained interest in
> > reaching minorities who have sex with men and who refuse to
> > call themselves gay.
> > 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. Many of the men at Flex tonight -- and
> > many of the black men I met these past months in Cleveland,
> > Atlanta, Florida, New York and Boston -- are on the Down
> > Low, or on the DL, as they more often call it. 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.
> > DL culture has grown, in recent years, out of the shadows
> > and developed its own contemporary institutions, for those
> > who know where to look: Web sites, Internet chat rooms,
> > private parties and special nights at clubs. Over the same
> > period, Down Low culture has come to the attention of
> > alarmed public health officials, some of whom regard men on
> > the DL as an infectious bridge spreading H.I.V. to
> > unsuspecting wives and girlfriends. In 2001, almost
> > two-thirds of women in the United States who found out they
> > had AIDS were black.
> > With no wives or girlfriends around, Flex is a safe place
> > for men on the DL to let down their guards. There aren't
> > many white men here either (I'm one of them), and that's
> > often the norm for DL parties and clubs. Some private DL
> > events won't even let whites in the door. Others will let
> > you in if you look ''black enough,'' which is code for
> > looking masculine, tough and ''straight.'' That's not to
> > say that DL guys are attracted only to men of color. ''Some
> > of the black boys here love white boys,'' Wallace says.
> > While Wallace tests one man for H.I.V. (not all DL men
> > ignore the health threat), I walk back downstairs to change
> > into a towel -- I've been warned twice by Flex employees
> > that clothes aren't allowed in the club. By the lockers, I
> > notice a tall black man in his late teens or early 20's
> > staring at me from a dozen lockers down. Abruptly, he walks
> > over and puts his right hand on my left shoulder.
> > ''You wanna hook up?'' he asks, smiling broadly.
> > His
> > frankness takes me by surprise. Bathhouse courtship rituals
> > usually involve a period of aggressive flirtation -- often
> > heavy and deliberate staring. ''Are you gay?'' I ask him.
> > ''Nah, man,'' he says. ''I got a girl. You look like you
> > would have a girl, too.''
> > I tell him that I don't have a girl. ''Doesn't matter,'' he
> > says, stepping closer. I decline his advances, to which he
> > seems genuinely perplexed. Before I go back upstairs, I ask
> > him if he normally uses condoms here.
> > As a recurring announcement comes over the club's>
> > loudspeaker -- ''H.I.V. testing is available in Room 207. .
> > . . H.I.V. testing in Room 207'' -- he shakes his head.
> > ''Nah, man,'' he says. ''I like it raw.''
> > If Cleveland is the kind of city many gay people flee,
> > Atlanta is a city they escape to. For young black men,
> > Atlanta is the hub of the South, a city with unlimited
> > possibilities, including a place in its vibrant DL scene.
> > I went to Atlanta to meet William, an attractive
> > 35-year-old black man on the DL who asked to be identified
> > by his middle name. I met him in the America Online chat
> > room DLThugs, where he spends some time most days searching
> > for what he calls ''real'' DL guys -- as opposed to the
> > ''flaming queens who like to pretend they're thugs and on
> > the DL.'' William says he likes his guys ''to look like
> > real guys,'' and his Internet profile makes it clear what
> > he isn't looking for: NO STUPID QUESTIONS, FATS, WHITES,
> > STALKERS OR QUEENS.
> > I told him I was a writer, and he eventually agreed to take
> > me around to a few clubs in Atlanta. With one condition:
> > ''You better dress cool,'' he warned me. ''Don't dress, you
> > know, white.''
> > William smiles as I climb into his silver Jeep Grand
> > Cherokee, which I take as a good sign. Two of William's
> > best friends are in the car with him: Christopher, a thin,
> > boyish 32-year-old with a shaved head, and Rakeem, an
> > outgoing 31-year-old with dreadlocks who asked to be
> > identified by his Muslim name. We drive toward the Palace,
> > a downtown club popular with young guys on the DL.
> > William doesn't date women anymore and likes guys younger
> > than he is, although they've been known to get more
> > attached than he would prefer. ''Yeah, he's always getting
> > stalked,'' Rakeem says enthusiastically. ''The boys just
> > won't leave him alone. He's got this weird power to make
> > boys act really stupid.''
> > It's easy to see why. William radiates confidence and
> > control, which serve him well in his daytime role as an
> > executive at a local corporation. He says his co-workers
> > don't know he likes men (''It's none of their business,''
> > he tells me several times), or that after work he changes
> > personas completely, becoming a major player in the city's
> > DL scene, organizing parties and events.
> > Christopher, who sits in the back seat with me, is the only
> > one of the three who is openly gay and not on the DL
> > (although he won't tell me his last name, for fear of
> > embarrassing his parents). Christopher moved to Atlanta
> > when he was 24 and was surprised when black men in the city
> > couldn't get enough of him. ''They would hit on me at the
> > grocery store, on the street, on the train, always in this
> > sly, DL kind of way where you never actually talk about
> > what you're really doing,'' he says. ''That's actually how
> > I met my current boyfriend. He followed me off the train.''
> > Rakeem, a roommate of William's, moved to Atlanta five
> > years ago from Brooklyn. He says he's ''an urban black gay
> > man on the DL,'' which he says reflects his comfort with
> > his sexuality but his unwillingness to ''broadcast it.''
> > People at work don't know he's gay. His family wouldn't
> > know, either, if a vindictive friend hadn't told them.
> > ''I'm a guy's guy, a totally masculine black gay man, and
> > that's just beyond my family's comprehension,'' he says.
> > While Rakeem and William proudly proclaim themselves on the
> > Down Low, they wouldn't have been considered on the DL when
> > men first started claiming the label in the mid-90's. Back
> > then the culture was completely under the radar, and DL men
> > lived ostensibly heterosexual lives (complete with wives
> > and girlfriends) but also engaged in secret sexual
> > relationships with men. Today, though, an increasing number>
> > of black men who have sex only with men identify themselves
> > as DL, further muddying an already complicated group
> > identity. And as DL culture expands, it has become an open
> > secret.
> > For many men on the Down Low, including William and Rakeem,
> > the DL label is both an announcement of masculinity and a
> > separation from white gay culture. To them, it is the
> > safest identity available -- they don't risk losing their
> > ties to family, friends and black culture.
> > William parks the car in a secluded lot about a block from
> > the Palace. As he breaks out some pot, I ask them if they
> > heard about what happened recently at Morehouse College,
> > where one black student beat another with a bat supposedly
> > for looking at him the wrong way in a dormitory shower.
> > ''I'm surprised that kind of stuff doesn't happen more
> > often,'' William says. ''The only reason it doesn't is
> > because most black guys are sly enough about it that they
> > aren't gonna get themselves beaten up. If you're masculine
> > and a guy thinks you're checking him out, you can always
> > say: 'Whoa, chill, I ain't checking you out. Look at me. Do
> > I look gay to you?' ''
> > Masculinity is a surprisingly effective defense, because
> > until recently the only popular representations of black
> > gay men were what William calls ''drag queens or sissies.''
> > Rakeem takes a hit from the bowl. ''We know there are black
> > gay rappers, black gay athletes, but they're all on the
> > DL,'' Rakeem says. ''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. You don't hear
> > black people say, 'Oh yeah, he's gay, but he's still a real
> > man, and he still takes care of all his responsibilities.'
> > What you hear is, 'Look at that sissy faggot.' ''
> > I ask them what the difference is between being on the DL
> > and being in the closet. ''Being on the DL is about having
> > fun,'' William tells me. ''Being who you are, but keeping
> > your business to yourself. The closet isn't fun. In the
> > closet, you're lonely.''
> > ''I don't know,'' Christopher says. ''In some ways I think
> > DL is just a new, sexier way to say you're in the closet.''
> > Both have a point. As William says, DL culture does place a
> > premium on pleasure. It is, DL guys insist, one big party.
> > And there is a certain freedom in not playing by modern
> > society's rules of self-identification, in not having to
> > explain yourself, or your sexuality, to anyone. Like the
> > black athletes and rappers they idolize, DL men convey a
> > strong sense of masculine independence and power: I do what
> > I want when I want with whom I want. Even the term Down Low
> > -- which was popularized in the 1990's by the singers TLC
> > and R. Kelly, meaning ''secret'' -- has a sexy ring to it,
> > a hint that you're doing something wrong that feels right.
> > But for all their supposed freedom, many men on the DL are
> > as trapped -- or more trapped -- than their white
> > counterparts in the closet. While DL guys regard the closet
> > as something alien (a sad, stifling place where fearful
> > people hide), the closet can be temporary (many closeted
> > men plan to someday ''come out''). But black men on the DL
> > typically say they're on the DL for life. Since they
> > generally don't see themselves as gay, there is nothing to
> > ''come out'' to, there is no next step.
> > Sufficiently stoned, the guys decide to make an appearance
> > at the Palace. More than anything, the place feels like a
> > rundown loft where somebody stuck a bar and a dance floor
> > and called it a club. Still, it's one of the most popular
> > hangouts for young black men on the DL in Atlanta.>
> > William surveys the crowd, which is made up mostly of DL
> > ''homo thugs,'' black guys dressed like gangsters and
> > rappers (baggy jeans, do-rags, and FUBU jackets). ''So many
> > people in here try so hard to look like they're badasses,''
> > he says. ''Everyone wants to look like they're on the DL.''
> > As I look out onto the dance floor, I can't help doing the
> > math. If the C.D.C. is right that nearly 1 in 3 young black
> > men who have sex with men is H.I.V.-positive, then about 50
> > of the young men on this dance floor are infected, and most
> > of them don't know it.
> > ''You have no idea how many of the boys here tonight would
> > let me'' -- have sex with them -- ''without a condom,''
> > William tells me. ''These young guys swear they know it
> > all. They all want a black thug. They just want the black
> > thug to do his thing.''
> > While William and many other DL men insist that they're
> > strictly ''tops'' -- meaning they play the active, more
> > stereotypically ''masculine'' role during sexual
> > intercourse -- other DL guys proudly advertise themselves
> > as ''masculine bottom brothas'' on their Internet profiles.
> > They may play the stereotypically passive role during sex,
> > they say, but they're just as much men, and just as
> > aggressive, as DL tops. As one DL guy writes on his America
> > Online profile, ''Just 'cause I am a bottom, don't take me
> > for a ####################.''
> > Still, William says that many DL guys are in a never-ending
> > search for the roughest, most masculine, ''straightest
> > looking'' DL top. Both William and Christopher, who lost
> > friends to AIDS, say they always use condoms. But as
> > William explains: ''Part of the attraction to thugs is that
> > they're careless and carefree. Putting on a condom doesn't
> > fit in with that. A lot of DL guys aren't going to put on a
> > condom, because that ruins the fantasy.'' It also shatters
> > the denial -- stopping to put on a condom forces guys on
> > the DL to acknowledge, on some level, that they're having
> > sex with men.
> > In 1992, E. Lynn Harris -- then an unknown black writer --
> > self-published ''Invisible Life,'' the fictional
> > coming-of-age story of Raymond Tyler, a masculine young
> > black man devoted to his girlfriend but consumed by his
> > attraction to men. For Tyler, being black is hard enough;
> > being black and gay seems a cruel and impossible
> > proposition. Eventually picked up by a publisher,
> > ''Invisible Life'' went on to sell nearly 500,000 copies,
> > many purchased by black women shocked at the idea that
> > black men who weren't effeminate could be having sex with
> > men.
> > ''I was surprised by the reaction to my book,'' Harris
> > said. ''People were in such denial that black men could be
> > doing this. Well, they were doing it then, and they're
> > doing it now.''
> > That behavior has public health implications. A few years
> > ago, the epidemiological data started rolling in, showing
> > increasing numbers of black women who weren't IV drug users
> > becoming infected with H.I.V. While some were no doubt
> > infected by men who were using drugs, experts say many were
> > most likely infected by men on the Down Low. Suddenly, says
> > Chris Bell, a 29-year-old H.I.V.-positive black man from
> > Chicago who often speaks at colleges about sexuality and
> > AIDS, DL guys were being demonized. They became the
> > ''modern version of the highly sexually dangerous,
> > irresponsible black man who doesn't care about anyone and
> > just wants to get off.'' Bell and others say that while
> > black men had been dying of AIDS for years, it wasn't until
> > ''innocent'' black women became infected that the black
> > community bothered to notice.
> > For white people, Bell said, ''DL life fit in perfectly
> > with our society's simultaneous obsession and aversion to
> > black male sexuality.'' But if the old stereotypes of black
> > sexual aggression were resurrected, there was a significant
> > shift: this time, white women were not cast as the innocent
> > victims. Now it was black women and children. The resulting
> > permutations confounded just about everyone, black and
> > white, straight and gay. How should guys on the DL be
> > regarded? Whose responsibility are they? Are they gay,
> > straight or bisexual? If they are gay, why don't they just
> > tough it up, come out and move to a big-city gay
> > neighborhood like so many other gay men and lesbians? If
> > they are straight, what are they doing having sex with guys
> > in parks and bathhouses? If they are bisexual, why not just
> > say that? Why, as the C.D.C. reported, are black men who
> > have sex with men more than twice as likely to keep their
> > sexual practices a secret than whites? Most important to
> > many, why can't these black men at least get tested for
> > H.I.V.?
> > The easy answer to most of these questions is that the
> > black community is simply too homophobic: from womanizing
> > rappers to moralizing preachers, much of the black
> > community views homosexuality as a curse against a race
> > with too many strikes against it. The white community, the
> > conventional wisdom goes, is more accepting of its sexual
> > minorities, leading to fewer double lives, less shame and
> > less unsafe sex. (AIDS researchers point to shame and
> > stigma as two of the driving forces spreading AIDS in
> > America.)
> > But some scholars have come to doubt the reading of black
> > culture as intrinsically more homophobic than white
> > culture. ''I think it's unfair to categorize it that way
> > today, and it is absolutely not the case historically,''
> > says George Chauncey, the noted professor of gay and
> > lesbian history at the University of Chicago. ''Especially
> > in the 1940's and 50's, when anti-gay attitudes were at
> > their peak in white American society, black society was
> > much more accepting. People usually expected their gay
> > friends and relatives to remain discreet, but even so, it
> > was better than in white society.''
> > Glenn Ligon, a black visual artist who is openly gay,
> > recalls that as a child coming of age in the 70's, he
> > always felt there was a space in black culture for openly
> > gay men. ''It was a limited space, but it was there,'' he
> > says. ''After all, where else could we go? The white
> > community wasn't that accepting of us. And the black
> > community had to protect its own.''
> > Ligon, whose artwork often deals with sexuality and race,
> > thinks that the pressure to keep homosexuality on the DL
> > does not come exclusively from other black people, but also
> > from the social and economic realities particular to black
> > men. ''The reason that so many young black men aren't so
> > cavalier about announcing their sexual orientation is
> > because we need our families,'' he says. ''We need our
> > families because of economic reasons, because of racism,
> > because of a million reasons. It's the idea that black
> > people have to stick together, and if there's the slightest
> > possibility that coming out could disrupt that, guys won't
> > do it.'' (That may help explain why many of the black men
> > who are openly gay tend to be more educated, have more
> > money and generally have a greater sense of security.)
> > But to many men on the DL, sociological and financial
> > considerations are beside the point: they say they wouldn't
> > come out even if they felt they could. They see black men
> > who do come out either as having chosen their sexuality
> > over their skin color or as being so effeminate that they
> > wouldn't have fooled anyone anyway. In a black world that
> > puts a premium on hypermasculinity, men who have sex with
> > other men are particularly sensitive to not appearing soft>
> > in any way. Maybe that's why many guys on the DL don't go
> > to gay bars. ''Most of the guys I've messed around with,
> > I've actually met at straight clubs,'' says D., a
> > 21-year-old college student on the DL whom I met on the
> > Internet, and then in person in New York City. ''Guys will
> > come up to me and ask me some stupid thing like, 'Yo, you
> > got a piece of gum?' I'll say, 'Nah, but what's up?' Some
> > guys will look at me and say, 'What do you mean, what's
> > up?' but the ones on the DL will keep talking to me.''
> > Later he adds: ''It's easier for me to date guys on the DL.
> > Gay guys get too clingy, and they can blow your cover. Real
> > DL guys, they have something to lose, too. It's just safer
> > to be with someone who has something to lose.''
> > D. says he prefers sex with women, but he sometimes has sex
> > with men because he ''gets bored.'' But even the DL guys I
> > spoke with who say they prefer sex with men are adamant
> > that the nomenclature of white gay culture has no relevance
> > for them. ''I'm masculine,'' as one 18-year-old college
> > student from Providence, R.I., who is on the DL told me
> > over the phone. ''There's no way I'm gay.'' I asked him
> > what his definition of gay is. ''Gays are the faggots who
> > dress, talk and act like girls. That's not me.''
> > That kind of logic infuriates many mainstream gay people.
> > To them, life on the DL is an elaborately rationalized
> > repudiation of everything the gay rights movement fought
> > for -- the right to live without shame and without fear of
> > reprisal. It's a step back into the dark days before
> > liberation, before gay-bashing was considered a crime,
> > before gay television characters were considered family
> > entertainment and way, way before the current Supreme Court
> > ruled that gay people are ''entitled to respect for their
> > private lives.'' Emil Wilbekin, the black and openly gay
> > editor in chief of Vibe magazine, has little patience for
> > men on the DL. ''To me, it's a dangerous cop-out,'' he
> > says. ''I get that it's sexy. I get that it's hot to see
> > some big burly hip-hop kid who looks straight but sleeps
> > with guys, but the bottom line is that it's dishonest. I
> > think you have to love who you are, you have to have
> > respect for yourself and others, and to me most men on the
> > DL have none of those qualities. There's nothing 'sexy'
> > about getting H.I.V., or giving it to your male and female
> > lovers. That's not what being a real black man is about.''
> > Though the issues being debated have life-and-death
> > implications, the tenor of the debate owes much to the
> > overcharged identity politics of the last two decades. As
> > Chauncey points out, the assumption that anyone has to name
> > their sexual behavior at all is relatively recent. ''A lot
> > of people look at these DL guys and say they must really be
> > gay, no matter what they say about themselves, but who's to
> > know?'' he says. ''In the early 1900's, many men in
> > immigrant and African-American working-class communities
> > engaged in sex with other men without being stigmatized as
> > queer. But it's hard for people to accept that something
> > that seems so intimate and inborn to them as being gay or
> > straight isn't universal.''
> > Whatever the case, most guys on the DL are well aware of
> > the contempt with which their choices are viewed by many
> > out gay men. And if there are some DL guys willing to take
> > the risk -- to jeopardize their social and family standing
> > by declaring their sexuality -- that contempt doesn't do
> > much to convince them they'd ever really be welcome in
> > Manhattan's Chelsea or on Fire Island. ''Mainstream gay
> > culture has created an alternative to mainstream culture,''
> > says John Peterson, a professor of psychology at Georgia
> > State University who specializes in AIDS research among>
> > black men, ''and many whites take advantage of that. They
> > say, 'I will leave Podunk and I will go to the gay barrios
> > of San Francisco and other cities, and I will go live
> > there, be who I really am, and be part of the mainstream.'
> > Many African-Americans say, 'I can't go and face the racism
> > I will see there, and I can't create a functioning
> > alternative society because I don't have the resources.'
> > They're stuck.'' As Peterson, who says that the majority of
> > black men who have sex with men are on the DL, boils it
> > down, ''The choice becomes, do I want to be discriminated
> > against at home for my sexuality, or do I want to move away
> > and be discriminated against for my skin color?''
> > So increasing numbers of black men -- and, lately, other
> > men of color who claim the DL identity -- split the
> > difference. They've created a community of their own, a
> > cultural ''party'' where whites aren't invited. ''Labeling
> > yourself as DL is a way to disassociate from everything
> > white and upper class,'' says George Ayala, the director of
> > education for AIDS Project Los Angeles. And that, he says,
> > is a way for DL men to assert some power.