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Living on the Down-Low

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When I was younger, I noticed that the gay guys in my high school would swish their hips as they walked down the halls, wear makeup, and polish their nails. I'm the type of guy who plays video games, works on cars, and watches sports. I didn't fit into what I considered the gay "mold," so for years I denied my homosexual feelings. And I even had help. I remember once confiding in my cousin about my sexuality. She had an openly gay friend whom she compared me with. "He's gay," she said. "You're just going through a phase."

At 16, I had my first sexual encounter with another teenage boy, which left me with many mixed emotions. I thought to myself, What's wrong with me? What did I just do? I kept it a secret for years because I feared that my friends would reject me, and losing that support system would be like losing my world. I was raised in a strict Baptist family in which homosexuality was not accepted. My parents' outlook was, "If you are, just don't tell us." And I didn't. I stayed on the DL for years, not telling friends, girlfriends or even my ex-wife.

I met my ex-wife at our church. I had hoped that by marrying her I would lose the desire to be with anyone else, especially men. And for the record, I really did love and feel attracted to her. After a year and a half, though, I realized I couldn't be committed to the marriage. I never cheated on my ex-wife. I just knew that I needed to be true to myself. To this day she doesn't know I'm gay. I told her I couldn't be faithful, but she thought another woman was involved.

The hardest part about being on the DL was the creeping and deceiving of women. It made me feel so guilty. I would tell women that they were the "only one" and men that I didn't deal with women--but I always used protection. I would dress one way to attract men (wearing designer labels) and another way to attract women (choosing nondescript clothes like khakis and a T-shirt). Often I would meet men on adam4adam.com, a social Web site dedicated to men who date men, and arrange to meet outside of my hometown. The party scene was extremely discreet, but the DL community in Philadelphia is so extensive that it was easy to find men to hook up with.

Still, it can be difficult to know for sure if a man is on the DL. I had a friend I didn't even know was on the DL until I saw him in a very underground DL spot here in Philly. The only advice I can offer women is to simply ask your man if he's ever slept with a man--especially if he's been in prison.

I decided to accept who I am three years ago at OutFest, an annual event in Philly that celebrates people coming out of the closet. I was exhausted from deceiving people, and when I finally decided to embrace and be open about my sexuality, it felt as if a weight had been lifted off me. My family and friends didn't abandon me, but I decided to join a gay support group.

I still feel bad about all the women whose hearts I've broken. Sometimes I wish I could rewind time and play out my past differently, but I can't. Since my divorce I have had one meaningful relationship with a man. It ended, ironically, because he cheated on me.

I've learned a lot from this whole experience of being on the DL. I realize how important it is to be true to who you are, regardless of what anybody thinks. It's not about whether you sleep with a woman or a man at night. At the end of the day, you have to be able to sleep with yourself.

 

Keith Farmer is a hospital outreach counselor in Philadelphia. Want to comment on this essay? E-mail Keith at onhismind@essence.com.

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