My DownLow Husband

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We dated in the mid 1990’s at a time when it was mandatory to ask the all-important dating 101 questions: Have you ever been in prison? Have you ever been tested for HIV? And, have you ever engaged in homosexual sex? I assumed his answers were honest because he professed to be a minister and my answers to the same questions were truthful. My mistake! Since this experience, my life has not been the same. I divorced him, quit my job and moved away. I was devastated and thought my life was over.

Three years into my marriage, I discovered that my husband had AIDS. He was a Down Low Brother--a man who has sex with men, does not consider himself gay or bi-sexual, and is involved with a woman, who does not know about his behavior.

Although not new to the African American culture, “DL� men are now attracting strong media attention. Primarily, due to the alleged link between them and the rising rates of HIV infection among Black women. Even though the HIV infection rates among Black Gay men are consistently rising. Unfortunately, the media attention has been more focused on inciting fear and mistrust, rather than understanding and empathy. As a result of my experience, I see gay men in a very different way. Ironically, I now view them with compassion and sensitivity. I would like to share my story on how I encountered a Down Low Brother and walked away with an unanticipated perspective.
  
Five years ago, I discovered my ex-husband was gay-and had full blown AIDS- when I checked him into the hospital for mild breathing problems. His breathing problems turned out to be PCP Pneumonia. PCP Pneumonia is one of the 200 Opportunistic Infections that set in when an HIV infected person’s T-cell count begins to fall below 200. My ex-husband had a T-Cell count of 50.

During that same time period, he developed other Opportunistic Infections (OI), such as CVM Retinitis, an eye infection that can lead to blindness, and he had an Alpothis Ulcer usually found in the lining the mouth. With one or more OI’s surfacing, he was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS. My reason for explaining his illnesses is to show that at that time, he exhibited no discernable symptoms.

I was ignorant to what AIDS related illnesses looked like. I had to educate myself. My ex-husbands illnesses were unrecognizable to a person like me. In 1999, I knew very little about the disease because I figured it would never affect me. I was a professional Black woman and my circle of friends included other professionals as well. As far as I knew, I had never met anyone with HIV/AIDS. I figured the disease would never affect me because I did not run in "those" circles. I was very wrong. AIDS doesn’t have a face. It does not discriminate.

We dated in the mid 1990’s at a time when it was mandatory to ask the all-important dating 101 questions: Have you ever been in prison? Have you ever been tested for HIV? And, have you ever engaged in homosexual sex? I assumed his answers were honest because he professed to be a minister and my answers to the same questions were truthful. My mistake! Since this experience, my life has not been the same. I divorced him, quit my job and moved away.
 
I was devastated and thought my life was over. How could I ever trust anyone again? Why would he do this to me? I hated him for lying and putting my life at risk because he couldn’t or didn’t want to face his stuff. Yes, he knew of his HIV status. Yes, he knew or suspected that he was gay. And yes, he still asked me to marry him! Back then I didn’t know gay men wanted to marry women! I didn’t know he was practicing what was then and now called living life on the “Down Low.� Regardless, I wanted to know how he could he do this to me.

In my journey to find the answer to this question, I researched numerous Gay websites, called several HIV outreach organizations, interviewed gay Black men, and talked to women infected with HIV from boyfriends or husbands living on the Down Low. I talked to just about everyone. And, as a result I came up with three reasons as to what happened to me and why. 

My first assumption stems from certain taboos ignored by the Black community, which has encouraged an atmosphere of secrecy-until death. Some say don’t bring your homosexuality out for the world to see. Keep it somewhere else--like in a closet. The Black community has been slow in addressing the issue of homosexuality. We have ignored the gay brothers in our community. The Black church has preached judgment, not acceptance to these men.

Gay Black men live in fear of what family members and friends will think and how they will react to their lifestyle. My husband of three years wanted to die, and was willing to take me with him rather than face the truth about who he was and what he had. Despite having job security and excellent health benefits, he still avoided getting treated. It was not until the Pneumonia attack that an HMO finally tested him for HIV. He didn’t want to know his status. Testing would have been confirmation of his lifestyle. If he didn’t want to know, how he could tell anyone else?

The “DL� brother will at all cost, avoid facing the often negative and hostile attitudes from the Black community. The increase in HIV/AIDS cases among African American women has gained national attention, as it should. But, why didn’t the rise in HIV rates among African American males draw the same level of concern? The lives of Black men are of little value in our society as a whole, but the lives of Black gay men are valued even less, particularly, in the Black community. But aren’t we human beings first? Compassion, not judgment needs to be served up in a major way. Our Black gay men are hurting and living in a private hell. Religious/morale issues aside, more needs to be done to change the Black communities attitudes towards these men.

My second assumption reveals that many DL men hide in heterosexual relationships to alleviate social pressures. Being in a relationship or marriage can put him in a more socially acceptable position. The media has made the “DL� brother out to be yet another dismal statistic for African American women in relationships to cope with. The “Down Low phenomenon� has made headlines in all the major newspapers, has been the focus of discussion on radio and TV. Even “Oprah�, has tackled the subject when she had reformed “Down Low� brother JL King on her show to promote his new book “Living Life on the Down Low�.
 
This issue is now at the forefront of mainstream Black America, better yet America in general. But, no one is digging deeper and no one is offering solutions. While I admit giving women tips on how to recognize a Down Low Brother is important, there is no concrete description of a Down Low brother. Therefore, giving such “clues,� can be ineffective, particular if the partner is in denial and doesn’t think he is gay or bi-sexual. If his immediate family members are in denial as well then they are going to perpetuate the lie.

Thirdly, I have concluded from this experience some people whether they’re gay, straight, or bi are just cruel manipulators. Some people want what they want and they will use anyone or anything to get it. I know this sounds elementary, but some people are just plain crazy. I do not think being a habitual liar and manipulator is in any way linked to your sexuality.

I have no regrets about my ordeal with a “Down Low� brother. I walked away HIV free and I thank GOD for it. But, according to the CDC there are thousands of women who are walking away with positive test results. While there is no valid research that proves there is a connection between the rising numbers of HIV infected Black women and the “Down Low� behavior, some published health reports have made a direct link between the two. However, some health officials will argue this is more a behavioral problem and not malicious intent to infect Black women with HIV. I agree with this notion to some degree. Women should begin insisting that their partners, married couples included, go for periodic HIV testing. The rising numbers of HIV infections among African American women prove no one is above suspicion. Until there is concrete evidence to justify the increase in infection rates among Black women, no method of prevention can be ruled out.

As for homosexuality in the Black community, dialogue has to begin. These men and women should no longer be made to feel that death is the preferred option over life. As a result of my encounter, I view Gay or Down Low men in a very different way. I view them with compassion, not sympathy. I see them as living breathing individuals who are just trying to live their lives the best way possible. With this in mind, it must be difficult living a life in secret. It must be difficult to look into the eyes of your Black brothers and sisters and see disappointment, hostility and embarrassment. As an African American professional woman, who has experienced a “Down Low� brother and survived HIV-free, there are other women out there who will not be so fortunate. In addition, there are Black gay men who will become infected as well.

Please do not misunderstand my compassion, I am not excusing my ex-husband’s decision to lie to me and put my life in danger. He will be held accountable for his actions. But, what I have discovered is the pain and the dark emotional places where gay men constantly dwell. They are hurting at levels I never knew about. They are alone, scared and in denial.  

These down low men are sons, nephews, uncles, brothers, and fathers. Therefore, the African American community must embrace and help them, not judge and alienate them. Fear compels them to live a life expected of them and not one desired by them. It is also this fear that sends them down the aisle with unsuspecting woman who have no idea of their inner struggles with their sexuality. Men choosing to live life on the “DLâ€? are putting their women in serious danger. It is no longer about saving face, but saving lives. 

Since her divorce, Williams has been educating people on HIV/AIDS prevention. She is currently, the Spouses of Color Coordinator for the Straight Spouse Network. SSN is an international support network of heterosexual spouses and partners, current or former, of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender mates. See www.ssnetwk.org For more articles and reports please click on "subscribe" on the homepage or please call (212) 481-7745 for the newsstand edition of The Black Star News. 

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