The DL Men & HIV

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The “DL� (Down Low) brother is news again. I say “again� because at several points in each of the last few years the issue of Black men who have sex with men but do not identify as gay or bisexual has attracted the attention of the media.

Resulting articles or television stories typically suggest a link between DL men and rising HIV infection rates in Black women. In recent months writers and producers at the New York Times, the “Law and Orderâ€? television series, the Oprah Winfrey Show,  JET magazine and Black DL man J.L. King, author of "Life on the Down Low" have focused attention on the “phenomenonâ€? of Black men who have sex with both women and men yet do not identify--at least to their female partners--as gay or bisexual.
As a Black gay man I view these stories with a mixture of confusion, frustration and apprehension. Confusion because at best there is only an anecdotal link between the headlines’ conclusion of Black women’s HIV risk and these brothers; frustration because none of these accounts offer solutions to the problems they identify; and apprehension, because while the DL brothers are overtly discussed and often vilified, just below the surface is a hostility that is perhaps even greater toward Black gay men in general. Any of several steps could move this simmering DL discussion forward in a productive way for the Black community:

(1) Get the Facts Regarding DL Behavior: DL behavior, while now in vogue to the media, is not new, and was actually the behavior of most men (regardless of race) attracted to men before the identities of “gay� or “bisexual,� and the idea that one could live a life having only partners of the same sex, became conceivable in the mid-twentieth century in the United States. It should also be noted that, in contrast to media representations, the Black community does not have a monopoly on DL behavior. The behavior exists in different forms in different cultures, although the behavior within these other cultures seems to generate little or no media attention.
Some DL men may not be able to consciously admit even to themselves that their sexual activities with other men suggest that they are not heterosexual. They may view these activities as isolated acts that do not define them. DL men may also view the hostility in the Black community towards openly gay and bisexual men and determine that they do not want to become possible targets of this hostility, and that losing the psychological support in the communities they live in is too high a price to pay to be open about their sexuality. The resistance of some Black men to identify as bisexual or gay can have other explanations as well. Some Black men associate the terms gay and bisexual with European culture, which tends to be the most visible media representation of same sex relations.  They may also associate these terms with effeminacy, and therefore view the identity of gay as a sign of weakness or of being un-masculine.

(2) Get the Facts Regarding DL Behavior and HIV Infection Rates: It is usually assumed that there is a logical link between DL behavior and Black women’s HIV infection rates, but the data to support this link are missing or anecdotal. Clearly there are women who have been infected by male partners who also had sex with men, but do these situations automatically describe a significant number of Black HIV-infected women? In an April 5th New York Times article on the subject, Dr. Robert S. Janssen, director of the Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agreed that "…the risk of contracting H.I.V. is highest in the African American community and there’s no question Black women are at higher risk compared to other women, but there’s still a lot we don’t understand…"

He warned that evidence is lacking regarding what is driving increased HIV infection rates in Black women. Research needs to determine whether there really is a link between DL behavior and women’s HIV infection rates.

There is an implicit assumption in tying Black women’s HIV infection rate to DL men that these men do not use condoms when having sex with other men and that the men they have sex with are HIV positive. This assumption also needs to be the subject of more careful research, including whether DL men are in fact more likely to use condoms with female partners. Without this data the rush to target DL men for women’s HIV infection could be a case of demonizing a convenient group that is unlikely to publicly advocate for their interests.

(3) Develop Stronger, More Credible and Empowering HIV Prevention Campaigns Targeting Black Heterosexuals: Condoms remain the most effective protection against HIV infection for sexually active people. The rising HIV infection rates among Black women as a result of sex mean that these women and their male partners are not using condoms or not using them effectively. Because HIV/AIDS has been stigmatized for so long as a “gayâ€? disease many heterosexuals have not yet internalized the need for condom usage and even in casual heterosexual encounters, introducing the topic of condom usage can be difficult. DL hysteria easily undermines what little gains we have made in fostering condom usage among Black heterosexuals. The current climate of DL media frenzy undermines heterosexual men’s commitment to condom use out of fear female partners will assume they are DL. A woman may be afraid that to suggest her partner use a condom means she suspects him of being DL. Introducing the topic of condom use at a later point in a relationship already underway can be even more difficult, leading to mutual suspicions. 

(4) Provide Women With the Psychological and Financial Resources They Need to Protect Themselves in Their Relationships: The United States has a long history of objectifying and demonizing Black sexuality. The widespread but superficial media attention given to the DL phenomenon is part of this legacy. Rather than allowing the discussion of DL men to continue as an undirected, titillating subtopic of Black sexuality, perhaps we in the Black community can use the attention that the DL phenomenon has generated to begin discussing fundamental issues of power and integrity in our relationships. The DL discussion highlights the subordinate status of many Black women in their relationships with men, a status that can result in their physical and emotional vulnerability in relationships.

Media reports on the DL phenomenon make clear that many single women are unwilling or unable to require that their male partners use condoms. Even women who believe they are at risk are reluctant to broach the topic out of fear of losing the sex, companionship or financial support of their partners. In the same April New York Times article regarding DL men, psychiatrist Gail E. Wyatt, associate director at the University of California Los Angeles AIDS Institute was quoted: "So while women are quite concerned about being infected with HIV, the threat of death is not enough to persuade Black women to protect themselves if it means being alone, childless and with less income."

Shifting this thinking is an ambitious cultural undertaking because it requires Black women to assert the power that they have been warned will make them unattractive to men who are in short supply. Such a transformation would require a combination of leadership campaigns, support groups, individual counseling, and other activities targeting both men and women. Relationship dynamics between Black men and women also reflect economic imbalances which are not unidirectional. Black women may depend on men economically, but the reverse is also common. Changing this economic imbalance requires real policy changes ranging from reform in law enforcement and prison sentencing, to education and child care provisions, to wage equality enforcement.

(5) Reduce the Stigma and Hostility Towards Homosexuality in the Black Community: Media accounts of DL men see them as engaged in deceit and often include the question “Why don’t these men just come out?â€?  --in other words, identify themselves as gay or bisexual. The hostility they are sure they would encounter from friends, family and strangers by “justâ€? coming out is a large part of the answer. I do not believe that the Black community is more homophobic or hostile toward homosexuals than other communities, but I do believe that we have a segment of our community who are extremely vocal in their hostility to homosexuality. Those in our community with neutral or more supportive views are reluctant to express them for fear of being attacked by the more hostile group. Some justify their hostility by referring to religious proscriptions, others claim to be upholding the image of Black masculinity, while still others profess to be intent on strengthening the Black family. Their hostile words and actions do not result in gay or bisexual men becoming heterosexual, but these actions and statements do leave some of these men ashamed of who they are and sends the message that being honest about their sexuality is not an option. The “DL phenomenonâ€? is a coping mechanism for these men in response to this shame.

I believe that family and community hostility, painful to anyone regardless of race, has a more devastating consequence for Black men. Black gay men and Black men in general have fewer economic resources than white men to provide a safety net in the event of rejection. The Black gay community reflects this economic imbalance as well with a relatively limited number of institutions (e.g. health agencies, social centers, group-specific businesses) that can provide a refuge to Black gay and bisexual men rejected by friends and family. With fewer economic resources, Black men are more dependent on the Black community for psychological support, making the withdrawal of this support, which happens when Black people shun Black gays and bisexuals, more devastating to Black men.

Perhaps just as damaging as hostility is neglect. If one has doubts regarding the low status of gay and bisexual men in the Black community one has only to review HIV infection statistics indicating that Black gay men are still the largest HIV infected group among Blacks. This is not at all apparent from recent news reports which have focused almost exclusively on HIV-infected Black women. All lives are worthy of concern, but implicit in the silence regarding Black gay HIV infections is the notion that the lives of Black gay men are of little value. There seems to be an assumption in the Black community that Black gay men are infected with HIV, or an expectation that they will become infected if they are not already. Tied to this assumption is the suggestion that attempts to intervene and prevent this result are not useful expenditures of energy.

Reducing the stigma and hostility toward homosexuality in the Black community involves an acknowledgement that Black gay and bisexual men and women are members of the Black family and that hostile behavior that damages one member affects all members. The DL phenomenon should serve as a cautionary note. If we as a community expect individuals to engage in relationships with integrity, sharing with their partners the truth of who they really are, then we have to consider how we can create an environment in which individuals who do just what we claim to expect will not be rejected and demonized. From the recent media coverage regarding DL men, the Black community seems to indicate that they want DL men to change.  There should be an understanding that any change in these men is dependent on all of us making changes in the way that Black gay and bisexual men are treated within our community.

McGruder is the Craig G. Harris Fellow with the New York State Black Gay Network.

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