Skip to content

Black and LGBTQ: How society may encourage the ‘down low’


Although being a memeber of the Lesbian, Gay Bisexual, Transgender and Questiong (LGBTQ) community these days should be considered something as normal as sometimes seeing a man in a skirt—particularly after the U.S. Supreme Court granted the bill to legalize same sex marriage—certain communities don’t consider it the norm at all.

What is the “down low”?

In the Black community, a man who identifies as being hetreosexual, but secretively has sex with other men, is considered to be on the “down low” or “DL.”

And although the term “down low,” originated first in the Black community and is described as “any kind of slick, secretive behavior, including infidelity in heterosexual relationships,” it’s not uncommon in the White community either.

A study published in the “Journal of Bisexuality” refers to, the down low as “a lifestyle predominately practiced by young, urban Black men who have sex with other men and women, yet do not identify as gay or bisexual.”

According to Jeffrey McCune, an associate professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., the meaning behind the term “the DL” is something derived from slavery, when slaves were under a lot of surveleince, everything had to be watched and done secretively.

Since the early 2000s the term “down low” has been used across the media.

The New York Times best-selling author J. L. King, who wrote “On the Down Low” describes a scene in his book, some would consider obscene and disturbing, yet familiar in many Black churches around America. King writes, “I spotted this brother from my pew, 10 rows back. When our eyes locked, I knew. He looked at me just a little too long.”

King, who openly spoke about his own experience on the Oprah Winfrey show in 2004, said it’s not about sexual orientation but more so about gratification. King also points out that the Black church is a hot spot for encounters between Black men to make arrangements for sex. He also mentions various signs to look out for, if a man is on the “DL”.

King has changed his story since and came out as gay, after he spent some time with other gay men.

“I have accepted the fact that I am a Black, gay, proud man,” he told Oprah in another interview. “Fear is what kept me on the down low. The fear of losing my family. The fear of losing my children. The fear of hurting my parents. The fear of losing my relationships with cousins and extended family and the church.”

Black church and LGBTQ community

Pastor Michael Stevens, who wrote a response in his 2006 book “Straight Up: The Church’s Official Response to the Epidemic of Downlow Living,” launched a criticism of King, noting that it is not the church that forces men to be on the DL, and he is definitely not encouraging the behavior to meet and greet at church to meet later for sexual encounters.

Stevens refers to homosexuality or the DL as an “invisible disease.”

“The Black church is a social space of high constraint, which produces the necessity for this secret. Churches require Black men to be DL,” McCune said.”

Because of the pressure and homophobia that comes from the community and the church, many Black men are under the impression to act hyper-masculine, as a result of dealing with male-insecuritities. Many believe the root cause of this controversy is the legacy of White supremacy’s emasculation of Black men during slavery, and the way Black men were perceived as violent, and dangerous, but also forced to look and be tough. But it’s not the same stigma that would face straight White men who have sex with men. Professor Jane Ward, who wrote the book, “Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Males,” said that sex among hetrosexual White men actually affirms and strengthens their heterosexuality.

New York Times Magazine has reported that Black men see homosexuality as a pervertion of the White man.

An organized Black subculture

In the article it says, “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—of all races and ethnicities— 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 20 years. 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 reportedly 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.”

The problem is not so much the infidelity part, but more so the fact that men on the DL often don’t use protection, there by placing their partners at high risk. The use of a condom is said to confirm an act of homosexuality, which they don’t identify with. Therefore, their sexual acts are bare (unprotected). And since many Black men are uncircumcised, this can place them at even higher risk for HIV/AIDS. Additionally, many inner-city Black men do not have access to regular health care.

According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the rates of HIV and STD cases in the Black community are higher than in the White community and said to be linked to those encounters on the “DL.” Although there’s no direct data that link men on the DL to the spread of HIV, a 2017 finding from the CDC revealed a higher percentage of HIV between gay Black men, and hetero sexual Black women.

Black men and HIV

As the CDC reported, “The findings in this report are consistent with previous research suggesting that among 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. Although this study did not find that nondisclosing were at higher risk for HIV infection than men who are more open about their sexuality, the data suggests 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 might have an important role in HIV/STD transmission to women. This might be particularly true for Black nondisclosing, of whom approximately one in five was infected with HBV (hepatitis B) and one in seven was infected with HIV.”

Also, according to the CDC, there are three findings related to African-American men who operate on the down-low, specifically being men who have sex with men but don’t disclose that information 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 percent); nearly three times higher than nondisclosing of all other races/ethnicities combined (5 percent).

Erasing the stigma

Confirming a 2016 CDC research, the study of 5,589, males aged 15–29 years, in six U.S. cities found that African-American males were more likely not to disclose their sexual orientation compared with White males (18 percent vs. eight percent).

HIV-infected nondisclosers were less likely to know their HIV status (98 percent were unaware of their infection compared with 75 percent of HIV-positive disclosers), and more likely to have had recent female sex partners.

Besides the now-waning trend of the homophobia in the Black community, many families also face the issues of being torn apart, because so many of their men get incarcerated and can’t provide for their families. Therefore, many men on the DL feel that if they would come out as gay, they would disappoint their families and get rejected by their loved ones and the church they cherish.

“You have extreme rates of unemployment, fatherless children because of the continuous incarceration of Black men, and so there’s a kind of panic within communities around issues of fatherhood and manliness,” McCune said.

Since society came so far with acceptance of the LGBTQ community in different cultures, to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS the stigma that still surrounds sexual orientation needs to be broken, no matter if Black, Brown, or White.