Reconsidering the Down Low

Posted in: News 2005-Older

By Keith Green

I admit it. I bought the “down low” hype, in part because I thought I was a “down low” brother myself. I have had sex with a woman who had no idea that I was HIV positive–because I chose not to tell her.

Thinking unrealistically big of my own little world, I made the assumption that lots of other men must be behaving in equally shallow ways. So it made sense when the media, and everyone else, kept telling me that Black men who have sex with other men behind the backs of their female sex partners are the primary cause for the alarming rates of HIV infection among Black women.

But in an attempt to shed some light on the true threat men on the down low present to Black women, a team of African American researchers from Atlanta–Greg Millett, Dr. David Malebranche, Byron Mason and Dr. Pilgrim Spikes–have compiled a report entitled Focusing “Down Low”: Bisexual Black Men, HIV Risk and Heterosexual Transmission. The report examines previous research on the behaviors of “down low” men, in an effort to clarify what actually we do and do not know about this mysterious group. Much of what they discovered should alter our thinking about the DL boogeyman.

I was privileged to spend a weekend with Dr. Malebranche at a recent retreat that I helped to organize for African American gay and bisexual men living with HIV. The retreat was held on the sacred grounds of Camp Ronora in Watervliet, Michigan. It has always been a place that sparks incredible epiphanies within me, and this visit was no exception. Dr. David, as I call him, was more than eager to discuss his research. His passion about the report that he and his colleagues have developed is palpable, and refreshingly so following the startling statistics concerning African Americans and HIV that were released at the National HIV Prevention Conference this month—-we now represent half of all people living with HIV.

The first thing that Malebranche made clear was that Focusing “Down Low” should not be confused with a new CDC study about the down low that was presented at the National HIV Prevention Conference. Headed by CDC researcher Rich Wolitski, the study aimed to identify down low men in order to assess their behaviors. Wolitski and his team surveyed 455 men of various ethnic backgrounds in 12 cities, 150 of whom were Black.

Similar to existing reports, Wolitski and his colleagues found that Black and Latino men were more likely to identify as down low than were white men. Of the 150 Black men in the study, 65 considered themselves to be on the “DL,” as it is known. Importantly, however, a quarter of the study’s Latino men and 7 percent of its white men did the same.

However, Malebranche argues, a key flaw in the study is that the participants were not given a clear definition of what their claim to being DL means. Researchers simply asked the men if they were familiar with the term. If they responded that they were familiar with it, they were then asked if they thought it applied to themselves. The problem with this method, and with studying the DL in general, becomes clear when you notice one particularly incongruent stat from the study: A third of the men who said they were on the “down low” said they were gay as well–which, at least according to the media-driven definition of the term, means they can’t also be on the DL.

Kenneth Jones, the African American co-author of the study, had not responded to requests for comment as of press time.

The CDC study is one of a growing number to make claims about the behaviors of down low men. The truth of the matter is that the very nature of the so-called down low—-clandestine at all costs—-will not allow someone living the lifestyle to tell you who he is. So we must remove our focus from the label and place it on the behavior that is being blamed for the rise in HIV infection among Black women. Focusing “Down Low” does just that. The authors explore the existing research on homosexual and bisexual behavior among Black men, in order to develop a clearer picture of the behaviors that bisexual men engage in.

One of the really interesting things that Focusing points out is that, while Black men are both more likely to be bisexually active and less likely to tell others about it, they form a tiny portion of the Black male population. One study estimated that only about two percent of all Black men ages 18 to 49 engage in bisexual behaviors. (Malebranche acknowledges this estimate’s imperfection, but says that it’s the best available data because it polled a general population rather than finding people at gay-identified places.)

At the same time, research shows that nearly 30 percent of exclusively heterosexual Black men have unprotected vaginal or anal sex with their female partners. Together, these findings force us to take a closer look at the amount of risk that Black men who engage in bisexual activity actually pose to Black women.

But to avoid venturing further down the blame-shifting path, my discussion with Dr. David looked into the future. He is currently working on a report with Larry Bryant, of the Morehouse School of Medicine, that looks at the role masculinity plays in the HIV-risk behavior of Black men who engage in homosexual sex, including those who do not identify as gay. Through this qualitative study of a small sample of Black men, Malebranche and Bryant are exploring the interaction between Black male views of masculinity and gay identification, as well as the sexual networks and sexual behaviors of Black men.

“There are so many reasons why Black men have trouble with labeling themselves as gay,” says Malebranche. “But more important than that, everybody’s individual life experience is different.” For him, HIV prevention loses its way when it starts grasping at broad theories and building caricatures like the DL man.

“We know that high education levels regarding HIV and condom use do not translate into safer sexual practices among many ethnic populations, not just Black men,” he explains. “I think we should focus our prevention efforts more directly on how to package an HIV prevention message that resonates with a person’s individual life experience, rather than lumping folks into certain categories and creating a mass product for consumption.”

Keith Green is a BlackAIDS.org contributing writer and communications coordinator for Test Positive Aware Network/Postively Aware magazine.

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