In 2003, the New York Times reported on a growing underground subculture in the black community known as Down Low, comprised largely of men who secretly engage in homosexual activity while living “straight” lives in public. It’s within that subtext that opposition researchers for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign began investigating rumors that Rev. Jeremiah Wright was running a “matchmaking service” for members of his Trinity United Church of Christ known as the Down Low Club, which included Barack Obama (and Rahm Emmanuel too). WND investigators interviewed a number of members of the church who claim the president benefited from Wright’s efforts to help black men who engage in homosexual activity appear respectable in black society by finding them a wife.
(NY Times) In its upper stories, the Flex bathhouse in Cleveland feels like a squash club for backslapping businessmen. There’s a large gym with free weights and exercise machines on the third floor. In the common area, on the main floor, men in towels lounge on couches and watch CNN on big-screen TV’s.
In the basement, the mood is different: the TV’s are tuned to porn, and the dimly lighted hallways buzz with sexual energy. A naked black man reclines on a sling in a room called ”the dungeon play area.” Along a hallway lined with lockers, black men eye each other as they walk by in towels. In small rooms nearby, some men are having sex. Others are napping.
There are two bathhouses in Cleveland. On the city’s predominantly white West Side, Club Cleveland — which opened in 1965 and recently settled into a modern 15,000-square-foot space — attracts many white and openly gay men. Flex is on the East Side, and it serves a mostly black and Hispanic clientele, many of whom don’t consider themselves gay. (Flex recently shut its doors temporarily while it relocates.)
I go to Flex one night to meet Ricardo Wallace, an African-American outreach worker for the AIDS Task Force of Cleveland who comes here twice a month to test men for H.I.V. I eventually find him sitting alone on a twin-size bed in a small room on the main floor. Next to him on the bed are a dozen unopened condoms and several oral H.I.V.-testing kits.
Twenty years ago, Wallace came here for fun. He was 22 then, and AIDS seemed to kill only gay white men in San Francisco and New York. Wallace and the other black men who frequented Flex in the early 80’s worried just about being spotted walking in the front door.
Today, while there are black men who are openly gay, it seems that the majority of those having sex with men still lead secret lives, products of a black culture that deems masculinity and fatherhood as a black man’s primary responsibility — and homosexuality as a white man’s perversion. And while Flex now offers baskets of condoms and lubricant, Wallace says that many of the club’s patrons still don’t use them.
Wallace ticks off the grim statistics: blacks make up only 12 percent of the population in America, but they account for half of all new reported H.I.V. infections. While intravenous drug use is a large part of the problem, experts say that the leading cause of H.I.V. in black men is homosexual sex (some of which takes place in prison, where blacks disproportionately outnumber whites). According to the Centers for Disease Control, one-third of young urban black men who have sex with men in this country are H.I.V.-positive, and 90 percent of those are unaware of their infection.
We don’t hear much about this aspect of the epidemic, mostly because the two communities most directly affected by it — the black and gay communities — have spent the better part of two decades eyeing each other through a haze of denial or studied disinterest. For African-Americans, facing and addressing the black AIDS crisis would require talking honestly and compassionately about homosexuality — and that has proved remarkably difficult, whether it be in black churches, in black organizations or on inner-city playgrounds. The mainstream gay world, for its part, has spent 20 years largely fighting the epidemic among white, openly gay men, showing little sustained interest in reaching minorities who have sex with men and who refuse to call themselves gay.
Rejecting a gay culture they perceive as white and effeminate, many black men have settled on a new identity, with its own vocabulary and customs and its own name: Down Low. There have always been men — black and white — who have had secret sexual lives with men. But the creation of an organized, underground subculture largely made up of black men who otherwise live straight lives is a phenomenon of the last decade. Many of the men at Flex tonight — and many of the black men I met these past months in Cleveland, Atlanta, Florida, New York and Boston — are on the Down Low, or on the DL, as they more often call it. Most date or marry women and engage sexually with men they meet only in anonymous settings like bathhouses and parks or through the Internet. Many of these men are young and from the inner city, where they live in a hypermasculine ”thug” culture. Other DL men form romantic relationships with men and may even be peripheral participants in mainstream gay culture, all unknown to their colleagues and families. Most DL men identify themselves not as gay or bisexual but first and foremost as black. To them, as to many blacks, that equates to being inherently masculine.
DL culture has grown, in recent years, out of the shadows and developed its own contemporary institutions, for those who know where to look: Web sites, Internet chat rooms, private parties and special nights at clubs. Over the same period, Down Low culture has come to the attention of alarmed public health officials, some of whom regard men on the DL as an infectious bridge spreading H.I.V. to unsuspecting wives and girlfriends. In 2001, almost two-thirds of women in the United States who found out they had AIDS were black.
With no wives or girlfriends around, Flex is a safe place for men on the DL to let down their guards. There aren’t many white men here either (I’m one of them), and that’s often the norm for DL parties and clubs. Some private DL events won’t even let whites in the door. Others will let you in if you look ”black enough,” which is code for looking masculine, tough and ”straight.” That’s not to say that DL guys are attracted only to men of color. ”Some of the black boys here love white boys,” Wallace says.
While Wallace tests one man for H.I.V. (not all DL men ignore the health threat), I walk back downstairs to change into a towel — I’ve been warned twice by Flex employees that clothes aren’t allowed in the club. By the lockers, I notice a tall black man in his late teens or early 20’s staring at me from a dozen lockers down. Abruptly, he walks over and puts his right hand on my left shoulder.
”You wanna hook up?” he asks, smiling broadly.
His frankness takes me by surprise. Bathhouse courtship rituals usually involve a period of aggressive flirtation — often heavy and deliberate staring. ”Are you gay?” I ask him.
”Nah, man,” he says. ”I got a girl. You look like you would have a girl, too.”
I tell him that I don’t have a girl. ”Doesn’t matter,” he says, stepping closer. I decline his advances, to which he seems genuinely perplexed. Before I go back upstairs, I ask him if he normally uses condoms here.
As a recurring announcement comes over the club’s loudspeaker — ”H.I.V. testing is available in Room 207. . . . H.I.V. testing in Room 207” — he shakes his head. ”Nah, man,” he says. ”I like it raw.”
If Cleveland is the kind of city many gay people flee, Atlanta is a city they escape to. For young black men, Atlanta is the hub of the South, a city with unlimited possibilities, including a place in its vibrant DL scene.
I went to Atlanta to meet William, an attractive 35-year-old black man on the DL who asked to be identified by his middle name. I met him in the America Online chat room DLThugs, where he spends some time most days searching for what he calls ”real” DL guys — as opposed to the ”flaming queens who like to pretend they’re thugs and on the DL.” William says he likes his guys ”to look like real guys,” and his Internet profile makes it clear what he isn’t looking for: no stupid questions, fats, whites, stalkers or queens.
I told him I was a writer, and he eventually agreed to take me around to a few clubs in Atlanta. With one condition: ”You better dress cool,” he warned me. ”Don’t dress, you know, white.”
William smiles as I climb into his silver Jeep Grand Cherokee, which I take as a good sign. Two of William’s best friends are in the car with him: Christopher, a thin, boyish 32-year-old with a shaved head, and Rakeem, an outgoing 31-year-old with dreadlocks who asked to be identified by his Muslim name. We drive toward the Palace, a downtown club popular with young guys on the DL.
William doesn’t date women anymore and likes guys younger than he is, although they’ve been known to get more attached than he would prefer. ”Yeah, he’s always getting stalked,” Rakeem says enthusiastically. ”The boys just won’t leave him alone. He’s got this weird power to make boys act really stupid.”
It’s easy to see why. William radiates confidence and control, which serve him well in his daytime role as an executive at a local corporation. He says his co-workers don’t know he likes men (”It’s none of their business,” he tells me several times), or that after work he changes personas completely, becoming a major player in the city’s DL scene, organizing parties and events.
Christopher, who sits in the back seat with me, is the only one of the three who is openly gay and not on the DL (although he won’t tell me his last name, for fear of embarrassing his parents). Christopher moved to Atlanta when he was 24 and was surprised when black men in the city couldn’t get enough of him. ”They would hit on me at the grocery store, on the street, on the train, always in this sly, DL kind of way where you never actually talk about what you’re really doing,” he says. ”That’s actually how I met my current boyfriend. He followed me off the train.”
Rakeem, a roommate of William’s, moved to Atlanta five years ago from Brooklyn. He says he’s ”an urban black gay man on the DL,” which he says reflects his comfort with his sexuality but his unwillingness to ”broadcast it.” People at work don’t know he’s gay. His family wouldn’t know, either, if a vindictive friend hadn’t told them. ”I’m a guy’s guy, a totally masculine black gay man, and that’s just beyond my family’s comprehension,” he says.
While Rakeem and William proudly proclaim themselves on the Down Low, they wouldn’t have been considered on the DL when men first started claiming the label in the mid-90’s. Back then the culture was completely under the radar, and DL men lived ostensibly heterosexual lives (complete with wives and girlfriends) but also engaged in secret sexual relationships with men. Today, though, an increasing number of black men who have sex only with men identify themselves as DL, further muddying an already complicated group identity. And as DL culture expands, it has become an open secret.
For many men on the Down Low, including William and Rakeem, the DL label is both an announcement of masculinity and a separation from white gay culture. To them, it is the safest identity available — they don’t risk losing their ties to family, friends and black culture.
William parks the car in a secluded lot about a block from the Palace. As he breaks out some pot, I ask them if they heard about what happened recently at Morehouse College, where one black student beat another with a bat supposedly for looking at him the wrong way in a dormitory shower.
”I’m surprised that kind of stuff doesn’t happen more often,” William says. ”The only reason it doesn’t is because most black guys are sly enough about it that they aren’t gonna get themselves beaten up. If you’re masculine and a guy thinks you’re checking him out, you can always say: ‘Whoa, chill, I ain’t checking you out. Look at me. Do I look gay to you?’ ”
Masculinity is a surprisingly effective defense, because until recently the only popular representations of black gay men were what William calls ”drag queens or sissies.” Rakeem takes a hit from the bowl. ”We know there are black gay rappers, black gay athletes, but they’re all on the DL,” Rakeem says. ”If you’re white, you can come out as an openly gay skier or actor or whatever. It might hurt you some, but it’s not like if you’re black and gay, because then it’s like you’ve let down the whole black community, black women, black history, black pride. You don’t hear black people say, ‘Oh yeah, he’s gay, but he’s still a real man, and he still takes care of all his responsibilities.’ What you hear is, ‘Look at that sissy faggot.’ ”
I ask them what the difference is between being on the DL and being in the closet. ”Being on the DL is about having fun,” William tells me. ”Being who you are, but keeping your business to yourself. The closet isn’t fun. In the closet, you’re lonely.”
”I don’t know,” Christopher says. ”In some ways I think DL is just a new, sexier way to say you’re in the closet.”
Both have a point. As William says, DL culture does place a premium on pleasure. It is, DL guys insist, one big party. And there is a certain freedom in not playing by modern society’s rules of self-identification, in not having to explain yourself, or your sexuality, to anyone. Like the black athletes and rappers they idolize, DL men convey a strong sense of masculine independence and power: I do what I want when I want with whom I want. Even the term Down Low — which was popularized in the 1990’s by the singers TLC and R. Kelly, meaning ”secret” — has a sexy ring to it, a hint that you’re doing something wrong that feels right.
But for all their supposed freedom, many men on the DL are as trapped — or more trapped — than their white counterparts in the closet. While DL guys regard the closet as something alien (a sad, stifling place where fearful people hide), the closet can be temporary (many closeted men plan to someday ”come out”). But black men on the DL typically say they’re on the DL for life. Since they generally don’t see themselves as gay, there is nothing to ”come out” to, there is no next step.
Sufficiently stoned, the guys decide to make an appearance at the Palace. More than anything, the place feels like a rundown loft where somebody stuck a bar and a dance floor and called it a club. Still, it’s one of the most popular hangouts for young black men on the DL in Atlanta.
William surveys the crowd, which is made up mostly of DL ”homo thugs,” black guys dressed like gangsters and rappers (baggy jeans, do-rags, and FUBU jackets). ”So many people in here try so hard to look like they’re badasses,” he says. ”Everyone wants to look like they’re on the DL.”
As I look out onto the dance floor, I can’t help doing the math. If the C.D.C. is right that nearly 1 in 3 young black men who have sex with men is H.I.V.-positive, then about 50 of the young men on this dance floor are infected, and most of them don’t know it.
”You have no idea how many of the boys here tonight would let me” — have sex with them — ”without a condom,” William tells me. ”These young guys swear they know it all. They all want a black thug. They just want the black thug to do his thing.”
While William and many other DL men insist that they’re strictly ”tops” — meaning they play the active, more stereotypically ”masculine” role during sexual intercourse — other DL guys proudly advertise themselves as ”masculine bottom brothas” on their Internet profiles. They may play the stereotypically passive role during sex, they say, but they’re just as much men, and just as aggressive, as DL tops. As one DL guy writes on his America Online profile, ”Just ’cause I am a bottom, don’t take me for a bitch.”
Still, William says that many DL guys are in a never-ending search for the roughest, most masculine, ”straightest looking” DL top. Both William and Christopher, who lost friends to AIDS, say they always use condoms. But as William explains: ”Part of the attraction to thugs is that they’re careless and carefree. Putting on a condom doesn’t fit in with that. A lot of DL guys aren’t going to put on a condom, because that ruins the fantasy.” It also shatters the denial — stopping to put on a condom forces guys on the DL to acknowledge, on some level, that they’re having sex with men.