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This article is about Down Low, or DL, as a lifestyle of certain African American men "who consider themselves heterosexual and live publicly heterosexual lives -- even to the point of being married to women, in some cases -- but who also have sex with men without telling their female partners." [1 ]

Down-low is an African American slang term [2] that was originally used to describe "any kind of slick, secretive behavior, including infidelity in heterosexual relationships."[1 ] It was then adapted by a subculture of black men to describe men who identify as straight, but who have sex with both men and women, without disclosing this to their female sexual partner(s). [3] [4] [1 ] [5] The term originated in the African American community, but the behavior it describes is, of course, neither new nor exclusive to that group.[6]

Besides being used to describe a behavior, Down Low is also used to self-identify a sexual preference or lifestyle in place of such terms as gay or bisexual.[5] [7] According to a study published in the Journal of Bisexuality: "The Down Low is a lifestyle predominately practiced by young, urban African American men who have sex with other men and women, yet do not identify as gay or bisexual."[8]

In this context, "being on the Down Low" is more than just men having sex with men in secret -- it is a sexual identity that is, at least partly, defined by its "cult of masculinity" and its rejection of white culture and terms.[3] [9] [10] [11] A 2003 New York Times Magazine cover story on the Down Low phenomenon explains that the black community sees "homosexuality as a white man's perversion." [9] It then goes on to describe the Down Low culture as follows:

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... 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.[9]

The term was popularized in the late 1990s and after by a series of mainstream media reports emphasizing the danger of such men transmitting HIV to their unsuspecting female partners.[12]


Media interest

The first known person to use "down-low" in a homosexual context was George Hanna, who used the term in the 1930 song Boy in the Boat about lesbian women.[13]

The first mainstream media account of the down-low as closeted homosexuality was reported in the Los Angeles Times on February 7, 2001. By the end of the year, numerous major media outlets had reported on the down-low. They included The New York Times (11 February), USA Today (March 15), Columbus Dispatch (March 19), St. Louis Post-Dispatch (April 1), New York Times (April 3), Chicago Sun-Times (April 22), Atlanta Journal-Constitution (June 3), San Francisco Chronicle (June 4), Village Voice (June 6), VIBE magazine (July), Jet magazine (September 8), Essence magazine (October), San Diego Union-Tribune (December 2), and Los Angeles Times (December 7). Nearly all these stories connected the down-low to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the African-American community.[12][13]

In the summer of 2003 two black gay cultural critics published controversial op-ed pieces that questioned the relationship between HIV/AIDS and men "on the down low". Village Voice contributing writer Jason King published "Remixing the Closet: The Down Low Way of Knowledge" in the newspaper's summer 2003 (June 2003) "Queer Issue", and San Francisco Chronicle contributing writer Frank Leon Roberts published "Stereotypes and Sexual Orientation: The 'down-low' -- Coming out your own way in black clubs" in the newspaper's July 23, 2003 issue. Both writers criticized negative mainstream media depictions of down-low men. They argued that the use of the term "down low" was a way for many African American men to admit to having sex with other men without necessarily identifying as "gay" in the traditional sense.

In August 2003 the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story called "Double Lives on the Down Low", written by Benoit Denizet-Lewis. Several episodes of The Oprah Winfrey Show were also dedicated to the subject including an episode aired 16 April 2004 and titled A Secret Sex World: Living on the 'Down Low' ; the show featured J. L. King discussing his book On the Down Low: A Journey into the Lives of "Straight" Black Men Who Sleep with Men.[14] The down-low was also part of story lines on episodes of the television shows Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, The Starter Wife, and ER.

In 2003 Jeffrey Q. McCune, Jr. wrote a full-length play entitled Dancin the Down Low that he directed and produced at Northwestern University in April 2004. In addition, McCune has dedicated a dissertation on this topic. His study examines DL discourses closely, while also exploring how DL men handle masculinity and sexuality.

Using a content analysis of more than 170 articles written between 2001 and 2006, sociologist Richard N. Pitt, Jr. concluded that the media pathologized black bisexual men’s behavior while either ignoring or sympathizing with white bisexual men’s similar actions. He argued that the "Down Low" black bisexual is often described negatively as a duplicitous heterosexual man whose behaviors threaten the black community. Alternately, the "Brokeback" white bisexual (when seen as bisexual at all) is often described in pitying language as a victimized homosexual man who is forced into the closet by the heterosexist society around him. [15]

Context and American sub-cultures

In his book Beyond the Down Low: Sex, Lies and Denial in Black America Keith Boykin explains that secret homosexual relations are not unique to African American men, and in fact occur in many societies and among all races. [16]

In "Power Plays, Power Works" John Fiske suggests that closeted homosexuality may be more common in American communities suffering from widespread poverty, in which members reportedly depend heavily on traditional family networks (and often religious institutions) for financial and emotional support. [17]

The term became eroticized within Black and Latino homosexual communities. Throughout the Black-Gay porn industry and internet networks, "down-low" quickly became a marketing term used to publicize pornographic movies, models, sex-clubs and social gatherings.[16]


Men who have sex with men and women are a "significant bridge for HIV to women," a CDC study suggested. The CDC's Young Men's Survey shows that about one in 10 men reporting sex with men also has sex with women. And more than one in four of these bisexual men has unsafe sex with both kinds of partners. "Men who also had sex with women had similar levels of HIV and STDs [as exclusively homosexual men] and higher levels of many risk behaviors,".[18]

The CDC report that analyzes the above mentioned survey states that "many men who have sex with men (MSM), especially young and minority MSM, do not disclose their sexual orientation" in order to avoid "social isolation, discrimination, or verbal or physical abuse". The report connects non-disclosure to an increased risk of HIV by stating: "Young MSM who do not disclose their sexual orientation (nondisclosers) are thought to be at particularly high risk for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection because of low self-esteem, depression, or lack of peer support and prevention services that are available to MSM who are more open about their sexuality (disclosers)."[19]

The CDC added a note to their report stating, in part:

"The findings in this report are consistent with previous research suggesting that among MSM, nondisclosure of sexual orientation is associated with being a member of a racial/ethnic minority group, identifying as bisexual or heterosexual, having greater perceived community and internalized homophobia, and being less integrated socially within homosexual communities (1--3,6). Although this study did not find that nondisclosing MSM were at higher risk for HIV infection than MSM who are more open about their sexuality (1--3), the data suggest that a substantial proportion of nondisclosers are infected with HIV and other STDs and are at high risk for transmitting these infections to their male and female sex partners.

The finding that more than one in three nondisclosers reported having recent female sex partners suggests that nondisclosing MSM might have an important role in HIV/STD transmission to women. This might be particularly true for black nondisclosing MSM, of whom approximately one in five was infected with HBV and one in seven was infected with HIV."


The CDC cited three findings that relate to African-American men who operate on the down-low (engage in MSM activity but don't disclose to others):

  • African American men who have sex with men (MSM), but who do not disclose their sexual orientation (nondisclosers), have a high prevalence of HIV infection (14%); nearly three times higher than nondisclosing MSMs of all other races/ethnicities combined (5%).
  • Confirming previous research, the study of 5,589 MSM, aged 15-29 years, in six U.S. cities found that African American MSM were more likely not to disclose their sexual orientation compared with white MSM (18% vs. 8%).
  • HIV-infected nondisclosers were less likely to know their HIV status (98% were unaware of their infection compared with 75% of HIV-positive disclosers), and more likely to have had recent female sex partners.[20]

In Beyond the Down Low, Keith Boykin denies this connection, attributing the media claim to sexism, racism, homophobia and classism.[21] Boykin stated that despite the numerous media accounts linking the down-low to the occurrence of AIDS in the African-American community, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has never cited men on the down-low as a factor.[13] and that no extensive research has ever been published about men on the down-low, in part because of the difficulty of identifying the targeted population.[13] In his book, Beyond The Down Low: Sex, Lies and Denial in Black America, he writes that men on the 'down-low' are not the cause of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in black America.[16] Boykin argues that the down-low debate demonizes black men, stigmatizes black women, and encourages an unhealthy "battle of the sexes" that distracts the community's attention from the issues of HIV prevention, personal responsibility and condom use.

A cross study analysis that reviewed 24 articles (and published in the Journal of the National Medical Association) found that "black MSM are more likely than MSM of other racial or ethnic groups to be bisexually active or identified; and, compared with white MSM, are less likely to disclose their bisexual or homosexual activities to others." The authors concluded that:

"The high prevalence of HIV in the black community and the greater likelihood of bisexuality among black men place heterosexual black women at risk for HIV infection. However, the contribution of high-risk heterosexual black men to the rising HIV caseload among black women has been largely ignored. Future research must evaluate the relative contributions of bisexual men and exclusively heterosexual black men to HIV cases among black women."


Additionally, a qualitative study, published in the Medical Anthropological Quarterly, concluded that:

"... covert and unprotected sex among bisexually active black men was commonplace for reasons that included prostitution, habituation to same-sex relations during incarceration, and the desire to maintain a facade of heterosexuality in homophobic communities. It was concluded that bisexual activity is highly correlated with secrecy and unprotected sex. The risks of bisexuality among black men are exacerbated by incarceration, homophobia, drug use, and the prison and public health focus on surveillance rather than prevention."


Fictional and popular media references

  • Cover, a 2007 independent film directed by Bill Duke
  • Several novels by black gay writer E. Lynn Harris, among them Invisible Life (1991), Just As I Am (1995), and And This Too Shall Pass (1997)
  • Kimberly Elise made a guest appearance on the UPN sitcom Girlfriends, in which she portrayed a woman infected with HIV by her husband, who was on the down-low.
  • Law and Order: Special Victims Unit featured the phenomenon on the episode "Lowdown", episode 111 airing April 6, 2004.
  • "Down Low (Nobody Has to Know)", a R&B song by R. Kelly released in 1996. Down-low in the song describes a secret heterosexual relationship.
  • An independent feature film entitled On The Downlow is released in 2004. Directed by Tadeo Garcia and written by Roger B. Domian, the film follows the lives of two Latino gang members hiding a special secret within a Chicago gang.
  • In mid 2007, on the NBC soap opera, Passions, Chad Harris is having a secret rendezvous with Vincent Clarkson, another black man he met while visiting a gay bar in the fictional town, Harmony, whose clientele is multi-ethnic.
  • The 2007 television drama The DL Chronicles tells the stories of African-American men who live secret lifestyles.
  • In the Season 8 episode of ER titled "A River in Egypt", Dr. John Carter treats a rapper that is involved in homosexual sex on the "down-low" and finds out he is HIV+.
  • In the film I Think I Love My Wife, Chris Rock's wife accuses him of being on the down-low.
  • In The Starter Wife in 2008, Rodney sleeps with a black athlete who denies he is even on the "down-low."
  • In Lie to Me in 2009, Season One, Episode 10 deals with a rapper whose friend was killed, and it turns out they were on the down-low.
  • The novel "Hiding in Hip-hop" by Terrance Dean. Gives clues to some mega-stars that aren't exactly straight.

See also


  1. ^ a b c King, J.L.; Courtney Carreras (April 25, 2006). "Coming Up from the Down Low: The Journey to Acceptance, Healing and Honest Love". Three Rivers Press. p. 36. Retrieved 2009-12-18. "I have been asked many times what exactly "on the down low" really means. My answer has never changed. The down low, or DL, generally refers to the lifestyle of black men who consider themselves heterosexual and live publicly heterosexual lives-even to the point of being married to women, in some cases-but who also have sex with men without telling their female partners. I've also been asked many times if I am the creator of the term "down low." Of course the answer to that is no. The term was originally devised to describe any kind of slick, secretive behavior, including infidelity in heterosexual relationships. The term has been common in the lyrics of many R&B songs. Singer R. Kelly made the phrase famous in his song "Down Low (Nobody Has to Know)": We can keep it on the down low / Nobody has to know. That song (and the video that went with it) was all about heterosexual infidelity. But the term was eventually adopted by the subculture of men who lead "straight" lives but sleep with other men on the side."  
  2. ^ Green, Jonathon (2006, page 893, ISBN 0304366366). "Cassell's Dictionary of Slang". Sterling Publishing.,M1. Retrieved 2008-03-19. "down low n. [1990s+] (US Black) a state of secrecy. down low adj. [1990s+] (US Black) covert, secret [i.e. keeping a low profile"  
  3. ^ a b Johnson, Jason (Sunday, May 1, 2005). "Secret gay encounters of black men could be raising women's infection rate". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2009-12-18.  
  4. ^ Mutua, Athena (September 28, 2006). "Progressive Black Masculinities". Routledge. p. 169.,+adapted+by+a+subculture+of+black+men&source=bl&ots=r7Xlwn6LNg&sig=XQS0_kFvRR5y-jJpNdVBv-s0nIw&hl=en&ei=bZorS7blNoLotgPl_8jYAw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CBAQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=%22down%20low%22%2C%20adapted%20by%20a%20subculture%20of%20black%20men&f=false. Retrieved 2009-12-18. "On release, many male prisoners who were either victims of perpetrators of sexual violence in prison return to relationships that predate their incarceration or begin new relationships, typically with heterosexual women. Some acting out the roles they adapted to in prison, carry on clandestine relationships, with men "on the down low." Indeed, the down-low subculture of black men who lead double lives engaged in heterosexual relationships as boyfriends, husbands, or fathers by day and having clandestine sex with men by night reproduces the dual consciousness of the hyperaggressive prison masculinity within black communities on the outside."  
  5. ^ a b Bennett, Jessica (May 19, 2008). "Outing Hip-Hop". Newsweek. Retrieved 2009-12-19. "...account of down-low life, gay sex parties and secret societies, where some of hip-hop's major artists openly sleep with men, only to go home to their wives and girlfriends at night's end. (A person who is "down low" considers himself straight but regularly sleeps with members of the same sex; the term is frequently used when describing black men.)...Hip-hop has a long history of homophobia, much of which is tied up with the powerful black church...Which is why hip-hop's gay culture is so shrouded in silence, with intricate measures taken to keep it that way. To get admitted into the "clique," as Dean describes it, a brother is carefully vetted, then interviewed by a person who will become his "sponsor," meaning he'll take the fall if that person screws up or goes to the press."  
  6. ^ "CDC > African American > Resoucers > Q&A: Men on the Down Low". Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved 2008-07-18. "The most generic definition of the term down low, or DL, is “to keep something private,” whether that refers to information or activity. The term is often used to describe the behavior of men who have sex with other men as well as women and who do not identify as gay or bisexual. These men may refer to themselves as being “on the down low,” “on the DL,” or “on the low low.” The term has most often been associated with African American men. Although the term originated in the African American community, the behaviors associated with the term are not new and not specific to black men who have sex with men."  
  7. ^ Wolitski, RJ (September 10, 2006). "Self-identification as "down low" among men who have sex with men (MSM) form 12 US cities". Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention, National Center for HIV, STD, and TB Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,. Retrieved 2009-12-18. "Men who have sex with men (MSM) who are on the "down low" (DL) have been the subject of considerable media attention, but few data on this population exist. This exploratory study (N=455) compared MSM who considered themselves to be on the DL with MSM who did not (non-DL MSM). 20% self-identified as DL. Blacks and Hispanics were more likely than Whites to self identify as DL. MSM who did not identify as gay were more likely than gay-identified MSM to describe themselves as DL. DL-identified MSM were less likely to have had seven or more male partners in the prior 30 days, but were more likely to have had a female sex partner and to have had unprotected vaginal sex. DL-identified MSM were less likely to have ever been tested for HIV than were non-DL MSM. Prevention agencies should expand existing programs for MSM to include specific efforts to reach DL MSM."  
  8. ^ Heath, Jessie; Kathy Goggin (January 2009). "Attitudes Towards Male Homosexuality, Bisexuality, and the Down Low Lifestyle: Demographic Differences and HIV Implications". Journal of Bisexuality. pp. 17 - 31. doi:10.1080/15299710802659997. Retrieved 2009-12-18.  
  9. ^ a b c Denizet-Lewis, Benoit (August 3, 2003). "Double Lives On The Down Low". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-12-18.  
  10. ^ Wright, Kai (Tuesday, June 5th, 2001). "The Great Down-Low Debate: A New Black Sexual Identity May Be an Incubator for AIDS". The Village Voice. Retrieved 2008-03-19. "This cult of masculinity is at the heart of being DL. Men like Tevin style themselves as prototypes of black manhood, and gender benders don't cast well in that role. Nathan Kerr, a gay Caribbean American whose Brooklyn marketing firm produces safe sex ads targeting DL men, says he's conducted focus groups where even flamboyantly feminine black men rejected the gay label because of its perceived weakness. "Gayness was seen as the whole sissy fag thing," he explains. Feminist cultural critic bell hooks argues that this perceived conflict between gayness and black macho also underpins homophobia in the community today, and dates back to the Black Power movement of Pryor's years. For hooks, when Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver declared of his gay brother, "The white man has robbed him of his masculinity, castrated him in the center of his burning skull," it stuck."  
  11. ^ "Sex, lies and the "down low"". August 16, 2004. Retrieved 2009-12-18. ""In the black community, you cannot be gay and black -- you have to choose," says King. "If you choose to be gay, then you're going to go over there where the white boys are, and be in the white gay culture. You can't be black and gay on the south side of Chicago. You can't be black and gay in Harlem. If you are, then you're looked at like, there's some sissy who's got issues. We've never been taught to accept our sexuality -- we hide it, because we're afraid of the fallout that comes from our churches, our family, our friends and our associations.""  
  12. ^ a b Wright, Michelle; Antje Schuhmann (2007, page 41-54, ISBN 3825896935). "Blackness and Sexualities". LIT Verlag Berlin-Hamburg-Münster. Retrieved 2008-03-19.  
  13. ^ a b c d Boykin, Keith (2006, page 172, ISBN 0786717041). "Beyond the Down Low: Sex, Lies, and Denial in Black America". Carroll & Graf Publishers. Retrieved 2008-03-18.  
  14. ^ "The Oprah Winfrey Show: A Secret Sex World: Living on the 'Down Low'". Harpo Inc.. April 16, 2004. Retrieved 2008-03-19.  
  15. ^ Pitt, Richard N., Jr. (2006) "Downlow Mountain? De/Stigmatizing Bisexuality Through Pitying And Pejorative Discourses In Media". Journal Of Men's Studies 14:254-8.
  16. ^ a b c Boykin, Keith (2006, page 17, ISBN 0786717041). "Beyond the Down Low: Sex, Lies, and Denial in Black America". Carroll & Graf Publishers. Retrieved 2008-03-12.  
  17. ^ Fiske, John (1993, page 211, ISBN 0860916162). "Power Plays, Power Works". Verso. Retrieved 2008-03-12.  
  18. ^
  19. ^ a b HIV/STD Risks in Young Men Who Have Sex with Men Who Do Not Disclose Their Sexual Orientation --- Six U.S. Cities, 1994--2000. CDC: US Center for Disease Control and Prevention. February 7, 2003. Retrieved 2009-10-31.  
  20. ^ CDC: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. CDC: US Center for Disease Control and Prevention. February 7, 2003. Retrieved 2009-10-31.  
  21. ^ Boykin, Keith (2006, page 173, ISBN 0786717041). "Beyond the Down Low: Sex, Lies, and Denial in Black America". Carroll & Graf Publishers. Retrieved 2008-03-12.  
  22. ^ Focusing “Down Low”: Bisexual Black Men, HIV Risk and Heterosexual Transmission. Journal of the National Medical Association. July 2005. Retrieved 2009-10-31.  
  23. ^ Lichtenstein, Bronwen (September 2000). Secret Encounters: Black Men, Bisexuality, and AIDS in Alabama. Vol. 14, No. 3. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, New Series. pp. 374-393. Retrieved 2009-10-31.  


  • Boykin, Keith (2005). Beyond The Down Low. Avalon. ISBN 0-7867-1434-4.  
  • King, J.L. (2004). On the Down Low. Broadway. ISBN 0-7679-1398-1.  
  • Williams, Jeffrey Lee Jr. (2004). The Low-down on the Down Low.. The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide.  , 11(6), 6.
  • Hubbard, Thomas K. (2003). Homosexuality in Greece and Rome. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-23430-8.  
  • Roberts, Frank Leon (2003). The 'down-low' -- Coming out your own way in black clubs.. San Francisco Chronicle.  , July 24, 2003.
  • Williams, Craig A. (1999). Roman Homosexuality : Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-512505-3.  

External links

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