In a conversation about the “down low,” a white co-worker and intermittent sex partner of mine told me, “Well, what needs to be said first is that these men are bisexual. They just need to have the space to come out.” I told her I thought that assertion was rather presumptive, and she bristled.
As a black bisexual who happens to be non-monogamous, I can assert that the notion that black men on the “DL” are categorically bi is a gross oversimplification of the issue, and it shows little understanding for the way black men navigate their sexuality and identity. Much of what has been written about the down low has been typically racist in its dialogue around black male sexuality, though it has traded in a white female victim for a black one.
Though I continued discussions around the subject with both white and non-white people, I came to the conclusion that there were few who really wanted to speak honestly about the DL. So, over the last few years, I’ve joked with more than a few people that I was going to start a trading card set made up of out, bisexual, non-monogamous, black men. After all, there were only 15 of us on the planet, and I thought we should be able to keep track of each other. Later, I realized my joking was a way of coping with my frustration and anger. Those feelings are rooted in the pathologizing (and often racist and/or erotophobic) nature of the discussions about folks like me by so many outside of queer communities and in our indictment from within those communities as well (black + nonmonogamous + bisexual = DL = vector for disease).
While gay and straight white academic communities and the popular media continued to engage in rote, inflammatory, sensational and racist demonizing of black sexuality, the black community, gay and straight, has not been able to get a handle on the discussion either. This failure was largely due to the dynamic overlap of homophobia and class privilege that has stunted most discussions of the way unchallenged patriarchy and sexism are integral to the experience of those on the DL and those they may infect.
As I’ve gotten older and more experienced, it has become clearer to me that many of the men I had encountered in the black community, who were either suspected of being homosexual or had confided in me that they did indeed have sex with men, would have been exclusively involved with men had they had a supportive community. More often than not, though, they were engaged in sexual relationships with black women because doing so was what made them black men, what made them good men, according to the community they did have. That a community all too invested in creating “Million Man Marching Great Black Fathers” and in making “Straight Black Dick” the measuring stick—the barometer of verity, the only thing of real intrinsic worth—is also a community willing to have women die at the end of one should come as no surprise. Still, the notions that the “crisis” is something new, and worse, a phenomenon specific to the machinations of an encroaching black homo menace, persist within the black community and beyond, while the relationship to rates of poverty and imprisonment go unmentioned. As Ta-Nehisi Coates has pointed out in the The Village Voice, the figure of one-third of black bisexual men being HIV positive came from research in night clubs in six cities and hardly constitutes the solid connection between the DL and HIV rates among women.
Last year on a listserv of black academics and artists, I found myself in a debate with one professed heterosexual brotha who thought it the “responsibility” of the black LGBT community to help stem the tide of infections among black heterosexual women. He paid no mind to the 20-odd year history of black gay activism around HIV, nor to the fact that the DL populace had been infecting out gay and bisexual men, as well as each other, for years. What also seemed beside the point to him was the dishonesty around men’s socialized behavior toward women and their bodies. In a context of compulsory monogamy, men have been infecting wives, girlfriends and lovers with any number of venereal diseases long before the discovery of HIV. It’s only now become an open discussion because penicillin, flowers, and a soul food dinner just don’t make things better anymore. “Baby I’m sorry” isn’t cutting it. So regardless of how the men identify sexually, this behavior is intrinsic to how HIV prevention plays out within communities.
The Hyper-Hetero Black Male
Perhaps the overlap between racism and black psycho-social relationships to sexuality is best illustrated by that oft-parroted coda “most of them are in jail, on drugs, or gay” in public discussions about the “shortage” or impending “extinction” of black men (and how that means the impending disintegration of the black community). Such conversations leave one aspect unquestioned: what comprises community is a monogamous heterosexuality. What if community were predicated on something other than the black penis? None of the black lesbians I’ve spoken with are concerned that there aren’t any black, non-transgendered men available for them.
The furor around the DL, represents an immediate challenge to the assimilation and normalcy that blacks have been struggling with publicly and internally. In America’s particular mix of racist patriarchy and homophobia, the clean, upstanding, hyper-heterosexualized, black male body has long been the gold standard of black cultural and personal worth. This works against those men aspiring to that standard who fear being exposed as failures, or worse, “enwhitened” as homosexuals, and against the women who have been taught that their intrinsic value lies in their willingness and ability to maintain an attachment to such a man, any man, even at the cost of their lives.
The paradox of African-American aspirations toward cultural and social standards that ultimately lead to our own destruction is not a new thing. The recent conversations around black men, their sexual behaviors, and HIV infection rates among straight, black women have largely been contextualized through what Coates described as “the sky is falling” style pronouncements with little statistical or epidemiological foundation. Nonetheless, the narrow dialogue around identity in which such conversations take root certainly necessitates further examination and expansion.
“ When we translate the history of black oppression sexually, [. . .] the reclamation of the black race gets translated into ‘it’s a dick thing’,” opined bell hooks in Marlon Riggs’ film Black Is, Black Ain’t. She concluded, “If a black thing is really a dick thing in disguise, we ’re in serious trouble.”