In 2004, African-American author J.L. King published On the Down Low: A Journey Into the Lives of Straight Black Men Who Sleep with Men and ignited a controversy.
The book basically talked about how some married men were having gay relationships on the side. Now for those of us familiar with people like Jim McGreevey and Ted Haggard, this wasn't anything new. A lot of us call it "being in the closet."
However, in the African-American community, which rarely addresses gay issues as it should, the book was a virtual firebomb.
To say folks went crazy was an understatement. King's book was an instant success, was the subject of a multitude of discussions, seminars, and television programs.
And unfortunately, a lot of the information was wrong. For a long time, men on the supposed "down low" was blamed for the HIV rate in the African-American community, particularly amongst black women. However, in 2009, the Centers for Disease Control debunked this belief.
In the meanwhile, so many folks were cashing in with their own plays, screenplays, and even new books about the supposed "down low" phenomena. The most ludicrous without question had to be that of Nation of Islam member Shahrazad Ali.
Ali, in her book How To Tell if Your Man is Gay or Bisexual, gave a few "tips" on spotting "down low men," including:
How does he sleep at night, what position does he sleep in? Does
he sleep like a woman, or like a man? What does he talk about in his
You can touch his rectum to see if he has those tell-tale humps
on his anus from having it stretched open with a penis. Then later on
ask him if he's ever had hemorrhoids really bad.
If he asks you to "toss his salad" and you agree, and his legs go
up too quickly, he's probably used to doing it.
Looking back at it, my guess is that the "down low" nonsense became hysteria in the black community because it challenged some notions that you can "spot" a gay man. Some folks were expecting the limp wristed, swishy stereotype and it never occurred to them that gay men come in all forms.
The saddest thing to me is that almost throughout the entire hysteria (which has abated at least a little), while sexual health education of the black woman became a big part of the discussion, very few people talked about the needs of the black gay man, i.e. why some gay men felt the need to be in the closet in the first place.
Except for this excellent documentary shown above (which I have included clips of), the mindset behind the "down low" hysteria seemed to be "how dare those men infect and lie to our women."
It was a seriously missed opportunity to educate members of the African-American community on the visibility and issues of black gay men.
Past Know Your LGBT History posts: