The lowdown on the down low

I remember when “keep it on the down low” was a term used to keep things – whether it was cheating on a significant other or classified information – on the hush-hush. Then, down low was shortened to “DL,” but like many words, the meaning of “down low” or “DL” has changed. The concept remains, but its meaning has been altered in the last decade.

The “down low” is now used to refer to black men who sleep with other men, but are not gay or even bisexual in their own eyes. These men have children, wives or girlfriends to go home to, but in their double lives they either meet men on the Internet or, in some cases, places that are created specifically for men to hook up with other men. They then engage in sex – in many cases, unprotected sex.

In an Aug. 3, 2003, article in the New York Times, it was reported that blacks make up only 12 percent of the population in America, but account for half of all new reported HIV infections. The article also says that while intravenous drug use is the main contributor to HIV, the main reason HIV is high among black men is homosexual sex.

The article cites a statistic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention claiming one-third of young urban black men who have sex with men in this country are HIV positive, and 90 percent of those are unaware of their infection.

There are black men who are openly gay in the black community. However, there is still a large percentage who feel the need to fit the stereotype black culture enforces. Black men are conditioned to think they need to be extra masculine.

Unfortunately, being homosexual is rarely associated with masculinity. Black men are constantly bombarded with images of thugged-out rappers who are the epitome of a super-masculine black man.

Then there is religion. Black men who grew up going to church know homosexuality is viewed as a sin, so it would be difficult for them to come out. The New York Times article explains that many black men reject a gay culture they perceive as white and effeminate, so they settle on a new identity and subculture with its own vocabulary and customs.

One major issue with the down-low culture is that many of the men go home and sleep with their wives or girlfriends, thereby spreading HIV. In an April 15, 2004, article in the St. Petersburg Times, experts say the trend has resulted in a disproportionate number of heterosexual, non-drug-using black women contracting AIDS. The article goes on to state that between 1999 and 2002, black women accounted for more than 70 percent of new HIV cases.

This problem cannot be overlooked. It is putting millions of black women at risk. Part of the problem is people having sex and not using any protection. However, what about the married women who believe their husbands are only sleeping with them? It is unfair for them, both for monogamy purposes as well as health.

Of course, the down-low lifestyle is not only in the black community. Dorena Kearney, the executive director for Philadelphia-based HIV prevention organization COLOURS, fears that black men may be unfairly targeted. There is no specific evidence stating the down-low behavior is unique to or more widespread in the black community. Furthermore, there is often no specific definition of what being on the down low actually means. Many down-low black men consider themselves gay, which according to the evolved definition, would not make them on the down low at all.

Even though more specific down-low statistics are still being developed, people cannot ignore the fact that society is suffering under the weight of a very serious epidemic. The St. Petersburg Times article presented a statistic that shows 1 in 46 blacks, 1 in 176 Hispanics and 1 in 346 non-Hispanic whites carry AIDS in America. I don’t even want to begin to talk about the situation in Africa.

People, especially in the black community, do not want to address the issue. To talk about it would mean it exists, and sometimes ignorance is bliss. But with an epidemic, the issue cannot be ignored. People are losing their lives over a disease that cannot be cured, but can be controlled. The black community needs to open its arms and embrace its gay brothers and sisters. Only then can they begin to win the fight over HIV and AIDS.

As a black woman, I fear for the lives of black people because fear is getting the best of them. I am scared that 100 years from now, it won’t be possible to save the people of Africa because the infection will spread to such a degree that it will be hopeless to suppress the pandemic. If measures are not taken in the United States, things might become as bad as they are in Africa.

The silence must be broken and one of the first steps is addressing the down-low culture. As it grows and men continue to keep their sexuality secret, more people will continue to suffer.

Shemir Wiles is a senior majoring in mass communications