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A Down Low Shame

What Some Black Women Don’t Know About Their Men Could Hurt Them

Ken Royster
"Antoinette" found out her fiancé was on the down low too late to avoid contracting HIV--and too late to protect her 4-year-old son from the disease.
Ken Royster
Local HIV/AIDS educator Tillman White says the down low lifestyle "gives people the ok to go ahead and act a fool."
Ken Royster
While she calls the furor around the down low "hysteria," the Rev. Debra Hickman says that men not divulging risk factors to their partners is "a significant problem."
Ken Royster
The entrance to Druid Hill Park

By Christina Royster-Hemby | Posted 6/23/2004

It’s a warm but cloudy May afternoon in leafy Druid Hill Park. The fact that distant thunder threatens a downpour doesn’t deter the owners of the cars and vans that line a shady lane, tucked away so that it could easily be missed by those driving by. People congregate and socialize comfortably, giving the stretch of road the air of a familiar meeting place.

But there are no women or children here. In fact, there are only black men. And they are trying to pick each other up, eager to engage in sexual acts, either in their cars or in the underbrush beyond. Handsome, average, and less than average, light and dark, thick and skinny, old and young—they look at the faces of brothers who drive by and peer into parked cars to see if there’s any interest from another man. Their ages appear to range from 20s to 70s. Some are prostituting themselves, but some seem to be taking a break from more respectable professional lives. There a couple of company vans among the vehicles, and several men look like they may have left jackets or ties in their cars.

Many wear wedding rings, and some of their backseats sport car seats and other kid paraphernalia—signs that they have women and children in their lives.

“Keep it on the down low/ Nobody has to know,” R&B star R. Kelly crooned in his 1995 hit “Down Low (Nobody Has to Know).” The lyric spawned a catch phrase that has come to describe anything kept a secret, but which has now been singled out to refer to black men who have sex with men but still identify as straight instead of gay or bisexual. The other all-important piece of this notion of the down low, by this definition, is that these men do not tell their wives and girlfriends that they are sleeping around.

Author J.L. King interviewed 2,500 such men across the country for his recent book On the Down Low: A Journey Into the Lives of “Straight” Black Men Who Sleep With Men, which is already on its ninth printing and has been on the New York Times best-seller list for eight weeks and counting. In his book, King says the down-low life is very real, and he details the lives and experiences of many DL men, including his own. He also cautions that women need to practice safe sex because their DL men could be putting them at risk for HIV infection. Concerned women are buying his book in droves.

But unlike King, who has made his story public, these men at the park do not want to be noticed. They look suspiciously at a reporter, nervous at the irregularity of a woman invading their space. A light-skinned man in a company van stares as he drives by, then laughs—as if thinking that this is the wrong place for a woman to pick up a man.

Others seem oblivious. Two men wearing face-obscuring sunglasses and baseball caps stand near the side of a field near the trees. Their hands hover near their crotches as they talk. They walk toward each other, walk away, and then toward each other again, before going their separate ways.

Some of the parked cars have tinted windows. Through the dark windows of one black car, however, you can see the outline of a man’s white T-shirt through the tint. You can see that the passenger is turned sideways toward the driver, positioned strategically to put his head in the driver’s lap.

For a thugged-out DL brother like Jay, pimping is easy. (Like many of those interviewed for this article, Jay asked that a pseudonym be used.) Even though this 6-foot-4, 195-pound, 34-year-old, easy-on-the-eyes chocolate brother from West Baltimore goes to the park or the other local cruise spots to meet men on occasion, he doesn’t have to. He says he doesn’t even have to go to gay clubs. In fact, he says he gets propositioned everywhere—at the gas station, at the mall, at the gym, while driving down North Avenue late at night, even at the church he attends.

Jay says a certain look and maybe a wink or a smile lets him know that another DL brother is interested. This is usually followed by a greeting that many people use every day, but which picks up a certain inflection in these cases. The pick-up line? A simple “Wassup.”

“It’s all in the eye you give them,” Jay says.

Looking around the scene at the park, Jay says he could pick up someone right now. But if he really wants to “holla,” or talk to a brother, a “fitted” (a fitted baseball cap), a team jersey of some kind or a “throwback” (a vintage jersey), and some expensive tennis shoes or “butters,” an expensive kind of Timberland boot, make it effortless. With this he has donned his “thugged out” persona. While he doesn’t dress that way everyday, he says the thugged-out image gets him more attention from other DL brothers.

Jay says that although DL brothers seek out sex with other men, they are not interested in what he calls “sissy boys,” the stereotypical effeminate gay man. They want to be with other straight-acting men—the straighter the better. Or even better, straight men.

“Anybody can be had, if the element is right,” Jay says. An ostensibly straight man full of a certain amount of drugs and alcohol, out at 3 or 4 in the morning, high and horny—who knows what he’ll do? But the flip of that situation, Jay says, is that drugs and alcohol give guys something to blame their behavior on. “They wake up saying, ‘I don’t know what happened last night.’ But they know what happened,” he says. “They weren’t that drunk or high.”

Jay believes that the thugged-out look has become so popular because of the pervasive influence of hip-hop on the black male’s speech, dress, and means of self-expression. Whatever the case, he says his thugged-out image is what DL brothers want. And while these men are having sex with each other, they still have an image to keep. They still have to be “hard.”

“The code of the DL brotha is that we have to be hard, because of the stigma that comes with being gay,” Jay says, adding that he subtracts five to seven years from his age and gives a different name when he’s “doing his thang.” “In today’s society, it’s cool for certain people—white people, women of all races—to be gay,” he says. “But for us, we’d just be regarded as faggies.”

Not all DL brothers are thugged-out. For some, maintaining their “straight” identity is plenty. This is closer to the experience of 42-year-old Kareem, a teacher who lives in Northeast Baltimore and says he’s your “average daddy type,” a little thick around the middle.

Kareem doesn’t want to meet in person. He is more comfortable with a telephone interview, as he is concerned about his identity being exposed. But he doesn’t mind talking about his life on the DL. He says that during his 20s, he had sex with men and women indiscriminately—“wherever I could hit it.”

Kareem confirms a life similar to Jay’s. A DL brother could meet another DL brother anywhere—“gyms, churches, strip clubs, adult bookstores,” he says. Kareem says strip clubs are especially good; after taking in all that female flesh, guys are often horny and ready for anything.

But there are always other places. “I could go to the [New] Haven and have a drink, and things could just happen from there,” Kareem says of the longstanding jazz club in Northeast Baltimore. “There are no codes, no secret handshakes—it’s all in the way he looks at you. It’s in the energy that you would notice when you would meet a guy.”

Kareem says he’s not on the prowl right now, but when he does “hit it,” he says he practices safe sex about 50 percent of the time. He says he is not infected with HIV. (So does Jay.)

While most of his recent encounters have been with men, Kareem says he could settle down with a woman, “if the right one came along.” He would be in good company. He estimates that about half of the DL guys he sees are married or have a girlfriend. A small percentage of those guys are having a one-time experience—as far as he knows.

One of the codes of the DL brothers is that they don’t tell. But back at the park, Jay tells all. With braggadocio, he says that he is a “top”—the one who penetrates during an encounter—which goes along with his tough-guy image.

As Jay speaks, a 40ish man standing by a gold Acura 15 or 20 feet away puts his shirt back on and buttons his pants. A much younger man, who Jay calls a “young shorty,” appears—perhaps from the backseat of the man’s gold Toyota.

Shorty sees he’s being observed but acts oblivious as he walks by and up the street and hops in the passenger seat of a dark red Ford, which soon pulls away.

Jay says he noticed something interesting. Shorty was wearing $175 boots. “You’d probably see him around the way slinging that rock,” Jay says.

Meanwhile, the dude in the Acura cranks hip-hop as he motors back down the lane. Hat down over his sunglasses, the man who was probably getting a blow job from Shorty, is now the “hardest” brother on the street again.

Next to Jay, that is, although he neglected to don his thugged-out look before coming down to the park today. Despite his pink polo shirt, he still gets lots of looks.

At that moment, a white man with silver-white hair to match his white BMW drives down the street. This sparks a thought in Jay. He says that there are white guys on the DL, but the terminology predominantly refers to black men. And it most affects black women—Jay’s soft spot.

Jay says he is telling his story, because he is concerned about the health of unsuspecting African-American women who don’t know that their men are having unprotected sex with men and so don’t request that their partners wear condoms. For this reason, Jay says he is concerned about the welfare of his mother, his sisters, his aunts—and his ex-wife.

Jay was married for five years. But, he stresses, he always practiced safe sex while on the DL so that his activities wouldn’t put his wife at risk.

Why? Because Jay is an outreach worker. He has seen firsthand how HIV/AIDS has affected the African-American community, and he believes that DL brothers who don’t practice safe sex are “loving women to death.”

 

While the federal Centers for Disease Control keep statistics on men who have sex with men, a category that could refer to men who identify themselves as gay or bisexual, the CDC does not have stats that specifically relate to “straight” men who are on the down low. Identifying a population that does not wish to be identified is problematic. But an April 5 New York Times article revealed telling information could help lead to a national picture of a possible new reason for the spread of HIV.

“In government studies of 29 states, a black woman was 23 times more likely to be infected with AIDS than was a white woman, and black women accounted for 71.8 percent of new H.I.V. cases in women from 1999 to 2002,” the article reads in part. “Though new cases of H.I.V. among black women have been stable in the past few years, the number of those who have been infected through heterosexual sex has risen.

“In 2001, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit group focusing on health issues, an estimated 67 percent of black women with AIDS contracted the virus through heterosexual sex, compared with 58 percent four years earlier. Black women accounted for half of all HIV infections acquired through heterosexual sex, in men or women, from 1999 to 2002, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.”

The next line raised the hairs on many black women’s necks:

“Recent studies suggest that 30 percent of all black bisexual men may be infected with H.I.V., and up to 90 percent of those men do not know they are infected. Researchers for the Centers for Disease Control have referred to these men as a ‘bridge’ to infection from gay men to heterosexual women.”

Men having sex with other men behind women’s backs is nothing new; author E. Lynn Harris’ novel Invisible Life about black men who lead double lives created a wave of hysteria across the black female community back in the mid-1990s. And just last year a series of articles, sparked by coverage in The Village Voice, exposed down-low culture to the light. What is new is the reported rise in HIV infections among black women.

Maryland was not among the 29 states included in the CDC study cited by the Times, but Maryland’s problems with HIV/AIDS are worse than most. While Maryland ranks 19th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in total population, according to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene it was 9th in cumulative number of AIDS cases (25,358 as of Dec. 31, 2002) and 3rd in AIDS incidence rate (34 cases per 100,000 population during 2002). In 2001, Baltimore has the third-highest number of AIDS cases reported of any major metropolitan area in the United States: 50 cases per 100,000 population.

African-American women made up 4,126 of Baltimoreans with HIV/AIDS at the end of 2002, up from 3,904 at the end of 2001. And not only are HIV/AIDS cases among black women on the rise, the means of infection is changing as well. The percentage of African-American females infected by intravenous drug use was down 2.6 percent from 58.2 percent of cases in 2001 to 55.6 perecent of cases in 2002; the percentage infected via heterosexual contact with men known to have HIV or be at risk for HIV rose 2.2. percent from 34.6 of cases in 2001 to 36.8 percent in 2002. Cases arising from heterosexual sex with men of “indeterminate HIV status or risk” was up from 3.5 percent in 2001 to 3.8 percent in 2002.

While local statistics indicate a slight rise in HIV infections from heterosexual sex, Colin Flynn, chief of the Center for Epidemiology and Health Services Research, Maryland AIDS Administration, contends that one must be careful about jumping to conclusions.

“What results in transmission is not so much a classification of people, but the risky behaviors they practice,” Flynn says. “Unprotected sex with partners where you’re not disclosing your HIV status or your risk of contracting the disease is contributing to disease spread. And I don’t think that’s restricted to HIV. That relates to disease in general.

“We don’t like to label people and place blame on populations,” he continues. “We’re trying to change behaviors that put people at risk.”

Likewise, the Rev. Debra Hickman cautions against assumptions about any rise in infection among African-American women or the men who may be infecting them. Hickman is president and CEO of Sisters Together and Reaching, a Baltimore-based nonprofit organization that provides support, services, and education to people with HIV and those in at-risk communities. “In the 13 years that we’ve been in existence, I have not known anyone who has said that they contracted HIV from a man who was on the down low,” she says.

Hickman says “there is no one true way to know how anyone contracted HIV. If one has lived a risky lifestyle—substance abuse, multiple sex partners, or in the sex industry—how do you really know how you contracted the disease?

“I think there is a lot of hysteria going on around the down low,” she continues. While she acknowledges that the down low is “a very real situation,” Hickman contends it is “more prevalent with African-American men that have been in jail, and come out and don’t know how to rid themselves of the stigma. They may want to live the ‘heterosexual life,’ or they may want to be gay.” In her opinion, the man who says he’s heterosexual but just likes having sex with men is “either one or the other.”

Regardless of the rationale, regardless of any particular reason for risky behavior or lying about it, Hickman is unequivocal: “In this epidemic of HIV, for a person not to tell their partner what their lifestyle is and what their relationships have been in the past, is a significant problem. We need to learn to talk about sex and not just do it.”

Still, Jay points out that women who are infected by a boyfriend or husband on the DL may not be forthcoming about it, even with their doctor: “Would you want to tell anyone that your man slept with another man and gave you HIV?”

He stresses that women need to look out for themselves, and that it’s a matter of asking the right questions and making the right observations. “Love can be blind to the point where you don’t see things that are obvious and in front of your face,” Jay says. “And DL brothas are counting on women not to figure it out. The DL brotha’s mentality is that if I can fool my girl, I can fool any girl.

“I’m not saying that everybody’s out here messing around,” he stresses, but that women need to pay attention to little things. “All of a sudden, if he has newfound friends, or his best friend knows everything about your husband, more than you do, you have to ask yourself: Why is that? You and your husband are supposed to be best friends.

“Some guys will defend themselves to the hilt—that they’re not gay. And then you find out that they’re sleeping with your brother.”

Still, Jay has managed to shield his double life from his ex-wife and his children, though he thinks that his ex-wife, who he still refers to as his wife, knows the truth in her heart. J.L. King writes that black men on the down low would prefer not to give up the lives they have built with the “perfect” woman; Jay says he still loves his ex-wife. “Regardless of where I am, she always has my back,” he says fondly.

He admits that a few questionable cell-phone bills may have given her an idea a while back, but she has said nothing. “She might know, but she doesn’t want to know,” he says.

 

One rainy April day in downtown Baltimore, 22-year-old Antoinette sits down to lunch. This woman-child is oddly well-composed, but two things give her away—the youthful sky-blue sweat suit she wears with white tennis shoes, and the whimsy with which she swings her feet as she allows them to dangle from the stool. Somehow she has managed to save a measure of childhood innocence. Anyone who saw her lunching would think she was a baby whose life had just begun.

She says her former fiancé, Jimmy, was on the DL, which was only one of many important details that Antoinette didn’t know about the man she loved. When she was 17, she not only learned that Jimmy was on the DL but also that he had lied about his age.

“At the time he was actually 31. But he was supposed to have been 23,” she says with lingering disappointment in her eyes.

One day she found four different IDs bearing his face and four different names and ages. (Jimmy dealt drugs, which Antoinette knew.) Jimmy was also hiding the fact that he was sleeping with two other men and at least one other woman.

Jimmy had been Antoinette’s first love, the only person with whom she had ever had sex, when she found out she was HIV+. By then, it was too late for her to start taking AZT, a drug known to suppress HIV, because she was pregnant. Had she known she was positive from the beginning of her pregnancy, her 4-year-old son would have had a good chance of being born disease-free.

Antoinette had already had a rough life when she met Jimmy at age 10. Though still a child, she scrambled for money to help keep food on the table for her mother and three brothers and sisters, since her mother had heart disease and could not work. Still, her mother told her often that she was not wanted. So when an attractive man came along and gave her a job cleaning his house, she jumped at it. Later, when she was 13, they became intimate.

“I was so happy to get away from my family, the Pillsbury Doughboy could have come by and said ‘I love you,’ and I would have gone off with him,” she says.

Antoinette says she was not concerned about Jimmy’s dishonest career. “Back then I felt like he wasn’t doing anything wrong,” she says. “Everyone else was doing it. He was just taking care of his family.” And she says she never suspected that Jimmy was sleeping around at all, much less sleeping with other men.

“We had a very regular sex life,” she says. “There were no red flags. So, when I found out the truth, I thought, That’s not possible.”

How does she feel about the man who is the father of her children now (she also has a 7-year-old daughter who is not HIV+), as he takes 35 meds a day in a jail cell? “I hate him, but I love him,” Antoinette says. “He bought me things I didn’t know it was possible for me to have. He took me places I didn’t know that black people could go.” She smiles. “And at the time, I was ecstatic. I was in love.”

But Antoinette doesn’t have time to worry about the past. She has children to raise and is focused raising the money she needs to buy a house in a “nice” neighborhood—away from the projectlike dwellings she lives in near Johns Hopkins Medical, where “somebody got shot right outside of my door.

“I promised my daughter that she would have her own room by her birthday,” she says. “I had to break that promise, but I won’t break the next one.”

 

Jay says he has met some of the men circulating in the park today, but the park really isn’t his scene. In fact, he meets a lot of the men he hooks up with while sitting at home.

He says he visits Web sites like Adam4Adam.com, where men seeking men offer pictures of their faces (often distorted) or other body parts. His user profile on the site is carefully designed to create a certain appeal, using both Ebonics and “big words” to appear young, but intelligent. His strategy works. He is constantly getting online instant messages from other guys who want to hook up.

Tillman White, with Baltimore’s Health Education Resource Organization, confirms that the down-low population exists far beyond the open air of a city park. Brothers on the down low are everywhere, he says, and proves it by playing voice-mail messages from a singles service featuring men on the down low looking for other DL men.

“Big nigga, 40-inch waist, top only . . . no white dudes,” says a man on a voice-mail message board called Gay Live. If you press 1, you can respond to the message. “I was married, but my family doesn’t know. It’s hard to find somebody I can trust,” he continues.

White, who is short, bald, and wears a stylish salmon-colored shirt, attempts to respond to this man, saying that a reporter would like to talk to him about his lifestyle. But the “40-inch waist” doesn’t respond.

It is part of White’s job to infiltrate chat rooms and voice-mail message boards to remind young men to practice safe sex. While he believes that the emphasis should be on the fact that individuals practice unsafe sex and transmit HIV/AIDS, not particular groups of people, he asserts that the DL lifestyle is as real as it is deceptive.

“It’s factual madness—it’s chaotic, corrupt, and deceitful,” White says of the down low. And this, he says, comes from a gay man who didn’t act on his own sexuality for years to insure his ex-wife’s safety and welfare. The down low, he says, “gives people the OK to go ahead and act a fool.”

“J.L. King is making a lot of people mad,” White says. But while the truth King speaks may be painful for some, it may be best for DL brothers and the women in their life in the end, White maintains. “A lot of people will get hurt,” he says. “And I think it’s about time that the darkness is pulled into the light.”

Meanwhile, Jay is trying to keep the details of his secret life tucked away in a black hole somewhere. He is so adamant about protecting that lifestyle that no one comes to his house unannounced. And if a DL brother threatens his lifestyle, gets too close, or threatens to tell, “I’ll cut that off real quick,” he says.

Still, the thrill of DL sex excites him enough to take the risks. In fact, it’s the risks of getting caught that provides the most excitement. “It’s just like Russian roulette,” Jay says.

And, while sex with men isn’t necessarily better, it is different, he says. “Men like rough sex, and women generally don’t,” Jay says. “And they don’t like anal sex. A man will get the vagina from his woman and the oral and anal sex from a man.”

Why not come out and live a gay lifestyle, then?

“For certain people in society, it’s cool right now to be gay,” Jay says. “But it’s not cool for black men. Black men have to be tough to be respected.”

Jay says that one day he’d like to get back together with his wife. They broke up because they married too soon and grew apart, he says. But Jay knows that if they did get back together he would have to come clean and tell her the truth, if their relationship had a chance of moving forward.

“You can’t build a relationship on deception,” he says. “I’ve already deceived her once.”

But there is one thing Jay can say about his marriage: “When I was married, I never slept with another woman.”

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