The True Implications of the “Down-low”
The impetus for this post is a personal theory of my own about this topic. I say this in the beginning because I want to make definitively clear that it is just a theory. The theory may be founded on what I think is common sense, and bolstered by statistics, but it remains theory at heart. As it stands however, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2005 49% of the people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in the United States were Black. This is nearly half of all diagnoses. Of the 126,964 women diagnosed with the disease in that same year, 64% were black women. The statistics show that this disease is at epidemic levels within the Black community at large and at pandemic levels for the Black female population of the U.S.
What accounts for such high levels of infection in the Black female community? It is my theory that the revelation of the “down low” culture amongst Black men in recent years is an attempt to lay blame for the sobering statistics almost squarely on the closeted gay community of African American men.
I make this claim principally because it seems that this nation, including people of all ethnicities, has a deep moral qualm with homosexuality. They look askance upon it as a lifestyle, and abhor the sexual images it often elicits in their minds. It is my feeling that the recent fascination with “down low” men is an implicit response to the question of what accounts for the rise of HIV/AIDS in the Black female community. The black community is pointing its finger surreptitiously at Black males who choose to live a closeted lifestyle. I’d like to come out on a side of this issue and explicitly call this a cop out. It is not giving enough weight to the personal choices of unsafe sexual practices on the part of both Black men and Black women. It also seems to say the often thought, but seldom said, statement that the spread of the disease in America can be blamed on homosexuals.
If I am allowed to refer to the CDC again, the organization states that the primary transmission category for Black men was sex with other men. For black women, the primary transmission category was high-risk heterosexual contact. The link to the down low culture is that most seem to be making the assumption that the high-risk heterosexual contact that these women are engaging in is heterosexual sex with men—who themselves have engaged in homosexual sex. It would seem tempting to refer to the transmission category for Black men and say, “The black men likely contracted the disease from homosexual sex, and then passed it on to a woman by not using protection and not telling her that he was really gay.” This seems to be in line with common sense, but it not entirely supported by the facts. The second transmission category for Black men and women is injection drug use. Perhaps the woman slept with a man who contracted the disease this way and not through male sexual contact.
I have often heard black women remark of how they would like a Black gay male friend so they could know who was on the down low. This seems to me to be two things. First, an attempt on their part to know who is “really gay” or not and second, but more importantly, a subconscious confession of a belief that if a guy is gay, he must be at very high risk of having HIV and therefore must be avoided. This is utter nonsense. A completely heterosexual male who has never had homosexual contact could still have the disease and pass it on to women, especially if he has had many partners with whom he has not used protection. What is more troubling in my estimation is the idea that all Black homosexuals, whether closeted or open, are spreading the disease. Unsafe practices are spreading the disease. Whether engaging in homosexual or heterosexual sex, whether man or woman, using adequate measures such as condoms, each and every time, will significantly lower the chance of infection. For a Black woman, it should make sense that having unprotected sex with five heterosexual men is much more dangerous than having protected sex with one homosexual man whether he is on the down low, or not. It is the practices of the person, not their sexual preference that dictate the level of risk.
The implications of the fascination with down low culture among Black males are a symptom of a society that is uneasy with the thought of homosexual life. They look upon it as immoral, and disgusting. They see a homosexual as a person who is lewd or perverted and feel the need to foist the burden of the spread of HIV on one community. It may well be a contributing factor, but is it the sole cause? That remains to be seen. What is of greater concern for me is the level of intolerance, ignorance, and hasty generalizations that are made whenever the talk comes to homosexuality. This is indicative of a Black culture, and an American culture, that dehumanizes a segment of the populace simply because of with which gender they choose to sleep. Let us recognize the humanity in us all, and find the true causes of the real issues that are plaguing our community. As a Black man I also fear the specter of HIV/AIDS, yet I am never so naïve as to think I am immune simply because I choose to have sex with women and not men. As a Black man I must rely on my good judgment and my knowledge of safer practices to dictate how I keep myself safe from infection and not my personal feelings or unsupported assumptions about how safe or unsafe the lifestyles are of homosexuals.
A Black woman should do the same.
Continue to Question the World Around You.