Being On The “Down Low”: What Does It Mean?

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What does the phrase, "down low" or "DL," mean? Eric provides a brief history and summary of the term, and offers commentary on the problems it presents.

Two Men Sculpture

Photo: nwhitford (flickr)

Two Men Sculpture

“Keep it on the down low.”  A few years ago, many knew this expression simply to mean that something should be kept secret or confidential.  This could refer to anything — a friend’s surprise birthday party, an embarrassing  accident, an affair.  Over the past decade, the use of the phrase “the down low” or “DL” has narrowed to refer to one thing: Black men who date women while secretly having sex with men.  But, this limited definition misses much of the diversity and complexity of life on the down low, and sexuality in general.

“Down Low”

In general, keeping something on the down low means keeping it a secret.  But, some suggest that the expression originates among Black communities in the US to refer specifically to secret relationships, including infidelity or extramarital affairs in heterosexual relationships.  However, one particular use of the term — men in heterosexual relationships who secretly have sex with men — was forced into the national spotlight.

Many people, regardless of race and ethnicity, gender, and social class hide from others that they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, have sexual and romantic relationships with members of their own gender, and/or experience desire for such relationships.  In large part, this is due to fear of homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic violence, discrimination, prejudice, and rejection from friends and family.

Hiding one’s sexual or gender identity is ofter referred to as being “in the closet.“  So, how is being on the “down low” different?  And, why have down low or DL men received so much attention over the past decade?

Scapegoats?

Hiding one’s non-heterosexual sexual identity, relationships, or desires, and the bias against these components of sexuality, are obviously not new phenomena.  But, shortly after the new millennium began, men who have sexual relationships with men — particularly those who also have sexual and romantic relationships with women — became the focus of discussions about the high rates of HIV among Black Americans.

Many celebrities (even Oprah!), politicians, and activists concerned about the HIV epidemic among Black people in the US began pointing to these men as a potential source for the staggeringly high rates of new HIV cases among (heterosexual) Black women.  The logic became that some men in heterosexual relationships were secretly having sex with men, and doing so without using condoms to reduce their risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STI).

Essentially, Black DL men were thought to be a “bridge” for bringing the high risk for HIV among men who have sex with men to heterosexual relationships.  However, researchers have found little evidence to support this proposal.  But this myth has persisted.  Why?

One possibility is that homophobic and biphobic prejudice has allowed down low men to serve as scapegoats, an easy target to lay blame for HIV rates among Black women.  Unlike “out” gay and bisexual men, hostility toward DL men is seen as justifiable because they are deceitful, intentionally lying to their female partners.  In fact, the disdain toward men on the down low spread beyond concerns about risk for HIV and STIs to general suspicion: “how to find out if your husband is on the down low“, “how to tell if a man is on the DL.”

The Role Of Race And Racism

As I noted earlier, feeling or actually being forced to hide one’s same-gender sexuality — whether identity, relationships, or desires — is experienced by many.  And, being on the down low is also not limited to Black men.  In a recent study published in Deviant Behavior, sociologists Brandon Robinson and Salvador Vidal-Ortiz found use of the term down low, or even identifying as DL, was just as common among white men as it was among Black men using Craigslist.com for casual sexual encounters with other men.  Another sociologist, Jane Ward, has also studied postings on Craigslist, specifically looking at white men who identify as “str8 dudes” or “str8.”

So, why have Black men been singled out?  Some have argued that Black men on the down low are simply the most recent victim of a long history of demonizing or pathologizing Black sexuality.  That is, somehow the sex lives of Black DL men are more deceitful, immoral, and risky (i.e., HIV risk) than those of exclusively-heterosexual Black men and DL men of other races.  And, they understandably face greater pressure to hide their “true” sexualities because Black communities in the US are stereotyped as more hostile toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

“True” Sexuality?

Are men on the down low really just gay and bisexual men who are in the closet?  Yes, in the sense that they hide some aspect of their same-gender sexuality.  However, no, there is a great deal more diversity and complexity than most discussions of the down low assume.  While some identify as bisexual (or even gay), many identify as heterosexual; also, some do not claim a particular sexual identity, while others actually identify as DL.  Also, as found in a recent study of DL men in New York City, their defining characteristic is hiding their same-gender sexuality from their female partners, yet some are “out” as DL (or gay or bisexual) to friends and family.

This diversity is missed, in large part, because the complexity of sexuality is overlooked.  In particular, one’s sexual identity is conflated with one’s sexual behavior is conflated with one’s sexual desires.  Whether for men on the down low, other people in the closet, out lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, or heterosexuals, these dimensions — identity, desire, and behavior — are related, yet distinct.  These dimensions tend to align for the majority of adults, but there is a sizable minority for whom these dimensions do not appear congruent nor permanently fixed.

Sexuality Is Complex

Focusing on the sexual practices of Black men on the down low is shortsighted, missing the complexity of sexuality and the great deal of sexual diversity in America.  Even for these men, such a narrow focus misses other important aspects of their lives and well-being, including poverty, prejudice and discrimination, limited access to quality health care, and so forth.

It is crucial for our understanding of sexuality and sexual health that we pay attention to other important dimensions, namely race and ethnicity, gender, and social class. In addition, we must consider how various social factors shape and constrain our sexualities.  This will help to move beyond a focus only on individuals’ actions while ignoring the limitations, constraints, and disadvantages they face.

Dr. Eric Anthony Grollman

received his PhD in sociology at Indiana University. He is an Assistant Professor at the University of Richmond. Dr. Grollman's research interests lie in medical sociology, social psychology, sexualities, and race/gender/class. You can see his personal blog at http://egrollman.com.
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