Down Low and Debatable
Black women talk candidly about men “on the down-low”. Warning: If you freak out at the mention of the word sex, reading this article may distort your moral values.
On a blustery winter morning in December 1999, Essex Garvey, a stay-at-home mom of four, was sorting laundry, when a glaring exhibition caught her eye. On the TV was a woman recently diagnosed with HIV. Noting the pained look on the woman’s face, Garvey discovered that the culprit was the woman’s boyfriend, an admitted bisexual. Pointing wildly at the TV she sighed: “Damn, that woman should have known her man was poking the log at both ends of the totem pole. Now, that would never happen to me.”
Three years later Garvey faced a growing problem among African-American women. She discovered that her husband was embroiled in a steamy down-low affair. For those unfamiliar with the phrase, “down- low” refers to men who are married or have girlfriends but secretly sleep with men.
Garvey who divorced her husband in 2003, said the real tragedy of this epidemic is the refusal of many women to question their partner’s sexual history. “As women it is our responsibility to learn as much as we can about the men we sleep with,” she said stoically. “And my reason for stressing this, is, because too many brothers are banging the pipe at both ends of the anal and vaginal chasm without informing their mates.” A practice the 38-year-old concedes has led to deadly results.
The DL Debate
Although this lifestyle is not new. The regularity with which it occurs in the African-American community was brought to the forefront in 2004 by J.L. King. An admitted down lower, King is author of the best-seller On the Down Low: A Journey into the Lives of “Straight” Black Men Who Sleep with Men. The book not only exposed this contentious taboo, it opened African-Americans eyes to a subject they previously chose to ignore, but now can no longer deny its existence.
In assessing this situation, two questions that cannot be ignored is what effect down-lowism has on the health and family of women who are cognizant of their partner’s sexual orientation and those who don’t have a clue. To find out, I interviewed three women of different backgrounds. Featured among the trio was Cynthia, a prominent attorney who only dates married men; Quiana, a high school drop out who insists that “having a piece of man is better than no man at all,” and Lucia, a 35-year- old administrative assistant formerly in a relationship with a man on “the DL”. Because of the sensitive nature of this topic, the actual names of the women were not used. Instead, pseudonyms were applied to protect their identities. Now that you’re familiar with the backgrounds, let’s hear their stories. The first section will be devoted to health and the disturbing element of the Down-Low Affliction, an increase in HIV among women of color.
“Hearing the results of my HIV test, suddenly anger turned to tears and I actually hugged the doctor. It was then that I realized that I was now part of the Down Low Brigade,” says Lucia, describing how she felt after learning her test results were negative. For Lucia this was indeed great news, based on a report by the Centers for Disease Control that says African American women represent a whopping 68 percent of new HIV cases.
Experts maintain the increase in HIV among Black women is attributable to several factors including bisexuality. While it is generally not acknowledged, bisexuality in the Black community is wide spread. Thus, putting women at risk. Agreeing with that assessment is Dr. Alvin Poussaint. In a 1996 interview with Ebony magazine, Dr. Poussaint, a psychiatrist at Harvard University noted, “No one knows the number, but there is a lot of bisexuality out there,” he asserted. “Just take the fact that so many Black men have been incarcerated. An extremely high number engage in homosexuality in prison because there are no other outlets. It is easy for a bisexual man to have a cover – women—and for no one to know he’s really bisexual.” Dr. Poussaint urged women to be “extremely cautious and get to know their partner.”
Not surprisingly, a large number of men on the down- low refuse to characterize themselves as gay or bisexual. Instead, they insist that they are straight, an observation noted by 1 of the 3 women I interviewed. “The average person equates bisexual men with femininity,” says Lucia with a twinge of cynicism in her voice. “But my boyfriend was all man. He was tall, muscular, masculine and he acted just like a regular man. Now after learning what I know now, I wonder what a regular man is.”
When asked what actions they would take if they discovered their men were on the DL, Quiana and Cynthia had vastly different answers. “Like I said, having a piece of man in your life is better than having nothing at all,” Quiana reiterated. “So, if I found out he was on the down-low, I’d ask him to make a decision as to whether he wanted to be with me or with men. If he chose me, then that’s all good. But if he decided that a man is more desirable, we could still hook up, but sex would be out of the question.” Looking at Quiana in her leather jacket and denim skirt sitting atop a pair of designer boots, I casually asked “Is having a man in your life that important?” The response was not unexpected. “Hell yeah. I gots to have the hook up. And like I said we can hook up, but he ain’t getting none of this,” she says laughing and pointing to her genitalia. For Cynthia the answer was just the opposite. “I have a history of only dating married men. But if I found out one of them was on the DL, I would stop seeing him.” Just like that?” I asked. “Just like that,”she says vehemently. “I value my health too much to remain in a relationship with someone who’s at a high risk of contracting HIV.”
After revealing their most intimate secrets, it becomes obvious that the women are uncomfortable discussing down-lowism, but feel compel to explain their feelings. So it was on to the topic of how being in a relationship with a man on the DL can have a detrimental effect on the family.
Of the three women, Quiana says that her kids aren’t as naïve about people with alternative lifestyles as the average person; since homosexuality is rampant in her family. When pressed for further information she frowns and says “No Comment.” In contrast, Cynthia said that under no circumstances would she subject her kids, ages 10 and 7 to a down-low relationship. “Although I choose whom I want in my life, I have to consider my family when it comes to being intimate with someone who engages in sex with both men and women.”
A victim of down-lowism, Lucia maintains that when her kids found about her boyfriend they were angry, scared and embarrassed. Angry, because he failed to mention he was on the DL. Scared, because they thought Lucia had HIV and/or AIDS and was going to die. “I have to reassure them constantly that I’m okay. So, regardless of what people say, such relationships can have a detrimental effect on the family. Lastly, they were embarrassed because they thought people would associate them with being gay, “especially my son,” says the Illinois native. “He didn’t want anyone thinking he was attracted to boys.”
In examining the impact of the down low on African-American women regarding family and health, one should keep in mind that each situation is different. As noted by the women above, when faced with such a situation some walk away while others choose to remain in the relationship. But, ladies be advised, if you delve into a relationship with a man on the DL, you’re not only putting yourself at risk but your family as well, especially if you have children. Thus, you are encouraged to use precaution at every corner and intersection when traveling along Down-Low Boulevard.