Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
The New York Times
HEADLINE: Double Lives On The Down Low
By Benoit Denizet-Lewis
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
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
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
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.
In 1992, E. Lynn Harris -- then an unknown black writer -- self-published
"Invisible Life," the fictional coming-of-age story of Raymond Tyler, a
masculine young black man devoted to his girlfriend but consumed by his
attraction to men. For Tyler, being black is hard enough; being black and gay
seems a cruel and impossible proposition. Eventually picked up by a publisher,
"Invisible Life" went on to sell nearly 500,000 copies, many purchased by black
women shocked at the idea that black men who weren't effeminate could be having
sex with men.
"I was surprised by the reaction to my book," Harris said. "People were in such
denial that black men could be doing this. Well, they were doing it then, and
they're doing it now."
That behavior has public health implications. A few years ago, the
epidemiological data started rolling in, showing increasing numbers of black
women who weren't IV drug users becoming infected with H.I.V. While some were
no doubt infected by men who were using drugs, experts say many were most
likely infected by men on the Down Low. Suddenly, says Chris Bell, a
29-year-old H.I.V.-positive black man from Chicago who often speaks at colleges
about sexuality and AIDS, DL guys were being demonized. They became the "modern
version of the highly sexually dangerous, irresponsible black man who doesn't
care about anyone and just wants to get off." Bell and others say that while
black men had been dying of AIDS for years, it wasn't until "innocent" black
women became infected that the black community bothered to notice.
For white people, Bell said, "DL life fit in perfectly with our society's
simultaneous obsession and aversion to black male sexuality." But if the old
stereotypes of black sexual aggression were resurrected, there was a
significant shift: this time, white women were not cast as the innocent
victims. Now it was black women and children. The resulting permutations
confounded just about everyone, black and white, straight and gay. How should
guys on the DL be regarded? Whose responsibility are they? Are they gay,
straight or bisexual? If they are gay, why don't they just tough it up, come
out and move to a big-city gay neighborhood like so many other gay men and
lesbians? If they are straight, what are they doing having sex with guys in
parks and bathhouses? If they are bisexual, why not just say that? Why, as the
C.D.C. reported, are black men who have sex with men more than twice as likely
to keep their sexual practices a secret than whites? Most important to many,
why can't these black men at least get tested for H.I.V.?
The easy answer to most of these questions is that the black community is
simply too homophobic: from womanizing rappers to moralizing preachers, much of
the black community views homosexuality as a curse against a race with too many
strikes against it. The white community, the conventional wisdom goes, is more
accepting of its sexual minorities, leading to fewer double lives, less shame
and less unsafe sex. (AIDS researchers point to shame and stigma as two of the
driving forces spreading AIDS in America.)
But some scholars have come to doubt the reading of black culture as
intrinsically more homophobic than white culture. "I think it's unfair to
categorize it that way today, and it is absolutely not the case historically,"
says George Chauncey, the noted professor of gay and lesbian history at the
University of Chicago. "Especially in the 1940's and 50's, when anti-gay
attitudes were at their peak in white American society, black society was much
more accepting. People usually expected their gay friends and relatives to
remain discreet, but even so, it was better than in white society."
Glenn Ligon, a black visual artist who is openly gay, recalls that as a child
coming of age in the 70's, he always felt there was a space in black culture
for openly gay men. "It was a limited space, but it was there," he says. "After
all, where else could we go? The white community wasn't that accepting of us.
And the black community had to protect its own."
Ligon, whose artwork often deals with sexuality and race, thinks that the
pressure to keep homosexuality on the DL does not come exclusively from other
black people, but also from the social and economic realities particular to
black men. "The reason that so many young black men aren't so cavalier about
announcing their sexual orientation is because we need our families," he says.
"We need our families because of economic reasons, because of racism, because
of a million reasons. It's the idea that black people have to stick together,
and if there's the slightest possibility that coming out could disrupt that,
guys won't do it." (That may help explain why many of the black men who are
openly gay tend to be more educated, have more money and generally have a
greater sense of security.)
But to many men on the DL, sociological and financial considerations are beside
the point: they say they wouldn't come out even if they felt they could. They
see black men who do come out either as having chosen their sexuality over
their skin color or as being so effeminate that they wouldn't have fooled
anyone anyway. In a black world that puts a premium on hypermasculinity, men
who have sex with other men are particularly sensitive to not appearing soft in
any way. Maybe that's why many guys on the DL don't go to gay bars. "Most of
the guys I've messed around with, I've actually met at straight clubs," says
D., a 21-year-old college student on the DL whom I met on the Internet, and
then in person in New York City. "Guys will come up to me and ask me some
stupid thing like, 'Yo, you got a piece of gum?' I'll say, 'Nah, but what's
up?' Some guys will look at me and say, 'What do you mean, what's up?' but the
ones on the DL will keep talking to me." Later he adds: "It's easier for me to
date guys on the DL. Gay guys get too clingy, and they can blow your cover.
Real DL guys, they have something to lose, too. It's just safer to be with
someone who has something to lose."
D. says he prefers sex with women, but he sometimes has sex with men because he
"gets bored." But even the DL guys I spoke with who say they prefer sex with
men are adamant that the nomenclature of white gay culture has no relevance for
them. "I'm masculine," as one 18-year-old college student from Providence,
R.I., who is on the DL told me over the phone. "There's no way I'm gay." I
asked him what his definition of gay is. "Gays are the faggots who dress, talk
and act like girls. That's not me."
That kind of logic infuriates many mainstream gay people. To them, life on the
DL is an elaborately rationalized repudiation of everything the gay rights
movement fought for -- the right to live without shame and without fear of
reprisal. It's a step back into the dark days before liberation, before
gay-bashing was considered a crime, before gay television characters were
considered family entertainment and way, way before the current Supreme Court
ruled that gay people are "entitled to respect for their private lives." Emil
Wilbekin, the black and openly gay editor in chief of Vibe magazine, has little
patience for men on the DL. "To me, it's a dangerous cop-out," he says. "I get
that it's sexy. I get that it's hot to see some big burly hip-hop kid who looks
straight but sleeps with guys, but the bottom line is that it's dishonest. I
think you have to love who you are, you have to have respect for yourself and
others, and to me most men on the DL have none of those qualities. There's
nothing 'sexy' about getting H.I.V., or giving it to your male and female
lovers. That's not what being a real black man is about."
Though the issues being debated have life-and-death implications, the tenor of
the debate owes much to the overcharged identity politics of the last two
decades. As Chauncey points out, the assumption that anyone has to name their
sexual behavior at all is relatively recent. "A lot of people look at these DL
guys and say they must really be gay, no matter what they say about themselves,
but who's to know?" he says. "In the early 1900's, many men in immigrant and
African-American working-class communities engaged in sex with other men
without being stigmatized as queer. But it's hard for people to accept that
something that seems so intimate and inborn to them as being gay or straight
Whatever the case, most guys on the DL are well aware of the contempt with
which their choices are viewed by many out gay men. And if there are some DL
guys willing to take the risk -- to jeopardize their social and family standing
by declaring their sexuality -- that contempt doesn't do much to convince them
they'd ever really be welcome in Manhattan's Chelsea or on Fire Island.
"Mainstream gay culture has created an alternative to mainstream culture," says
John Peterson, a professor of psychology at Georgia State University who
specializes in AIDS research among black men, "and many whites take advantage
of that. They say, 'I will leave Podunk and I will go to the gay barrios of San
Francisco and other cities, and I will go live there, be who I really am, and
be part of the mainstream.' Many African-Americans say, 'I can't go and face
the racism I will see there, and I can't create a functioning alternative
society because I don't have the resources.' They're stuck." As Peterson, who
says that the majority of black men who have sex with men are on the DL, boils
it down, "The choice becomes, do I want to be discriminated against at home for
my sexuality, or do I want to move away and be discriminated against for my
So increasing numbers of black men -- and, lately, other men of color who claim
the DL identity -- split the difference. They've created a community of their
own, a cultural "party" where whites aren't invited. "Labeling yourself as DL
is a way to disassociate from everything white and upper class," says George
Ayala, the director of education for AIDS Project Los Angeles. And that, he
says, is a way for DL men to assert some power.
Still, for all the defiance that DL culture claims for itself, for all the
forcefulness of the "never apologize, never explain" stance, a sense of shame
can hover at the margins. It's the inevitable price of living a double life.
Consider these last lines of a DL college student's online profile. "Lookin 4
cool ass brothers on tha down low. . . . You aint dl if you have a V.I.P. pass
to tha gay spot. . . . You aint dl if you call ur dude 'gurl.' . . . Put some
bass in ur voice yo and whats tha deal wit tha attitude? If I wanted a broad I
would get one -- we both know what we doin is wrong."
The world headquarters of the Web site www.streetthugz.com is a small,
nondescript storefront next to a leather bar on Cleveland's West Side. The
site's founder, Rick Dickson, invites me to watch one of its live Web casts,
which he says feature "the most masculine DL brothers in the world doing what
they do best."
Rick opens the door holding a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other.
Inside, a group of young black men sit in a thick haze of cigarette smoke as
the song "Bitch Better Have My Money" plays from a nearby stereo. By the far
wall, two men type frantically on computer keyboards, participating in 30
chat-room conversations at once. Near the street-front window, which is covered
by a red sheet, there are three muscular black men in their early 20's.
Rick sits down and lights another cigarette. A part-time comic who goes by the
stage name Slick Rick, he has a shaved head, piercing green eyes and a
light-skinned face with a default setting on mean. Twice a week, Rick's thugs,
as he calls them, perform a sex show for anyone who cares to log on. Although
less than a year old, the site has developed a devoted following, thanks mostly
to chat-room word of mouth. "We're going to be the next Bill Gates of the
Internet industry," he assures me. "We got black DL thugs getting it on, and
that's what people want to see!"
One of the site's most popular stars is a tall, strikingly handsome 23-year-old
former Division 1 basketball player, who goes by the name Jigga. When I first
meet Jigga about 10 minutes before the show, he's naked, stretching and doing
push-ups in an adjacent room as he peppers me with questions about journalism
and sportswriting. "I want to be a sportswriter," he says. "Either that, or a
lawyer. I love to argue."
Unlike some of the other streetthugz stars who dropped out of school and hustle
for money, Jigga says he comes from a close middle-class family and always did
well academically. Considering all that, I ask him how he came to find himself
here. "It's some extra cash," he says. "But mostly, it's 'cause I like the
attention. What can I say? I'm vain." Jigga says he has sex with both men and
women, but he doesn't label himself as bisexual. "I'm just freaky," he says
with a smile.
Like many guys on the DL, Jigga first connected to other DL men through phone
personals lines, which still have certain advantages over Internet chat rooms.
"You can tell a lot right away by a voice," he says later. "There are guys who
naturally sound masculine, and then there's guys who are obviously trying to
hide the fact that they're big girls."
> From: leeti...@aol.comeonover (Sexy Red)
> Most DL men identify themselves not
> as gay or bisexual but first and foremost as black.
"I'm not gay, I'm just black." Wow, how incredibly f*cked up.
Great article, BTW.
Bush is a disgrace to the constitution. See
> From: Steve Sullivan <no...@none.com>
> Organization: SBC http://yahoo.sbc.com
> Newsgroups: alt.gossip.celebrities
> Date: Sun, 18 Apr 2004 03:26:50 GMT
> Subject: Re: "Double Lives on the Down Low"--NY Times Article (part 1)
> Back in the 80's we had a term for being in the "down low", it was
> called being in the closet. The brotherman simply cant accept that he
> is gay.
So true, so true. But admit it...it was a good laugh reading that article
and all the excuses these "brothas" make for how they are NOT gay. It was a
comedy of denial, that's for sure.
FWIW, *ER* had an episode dealing with this too, either last season or the
one before that. It was about a young black rapper who had a girlfriend but
was on the DL with his young male buddy -- who turned up HIV positive.
"I'm not gay, I'm just hot." Senator Joe McCarthy and
his buddy Roy Cohn.