Talking to brothers on the down low
If you think brothers who have sex with men in secret are part of some new fad that will soon pass, consider this: It was more than 30 years ago when I met my first down-low brother. He was a handsome high-school football star, and I was the skinny kid who couldn’t believe my good fortune when our paths crossed one summer evening in Little Rock, Arkansas. For months afterward our every move was cloaked in secrecy. He made it clear that I was not to mention knowing him, much less what we did when we managed to find time alone.
When he decided to end the affair to pursue his future wife, I was left with my first broken heart. Still I never breathed a word of our relationship to anyone. When I saw him in public I looked the other way, and I never called him, even when I longed for his voice. In those days before AIDS, his attitude was that what his girlfriend didn’t know couldn’t hurt her.
That might have been true then, but with large numbers of African-American women being diagnosed with HIV—72 percent of all new female cases—the situation has changed. Women’s lives today depend on their knowing who’s sleeping with whom.
That’s why, at Essence’s request, I agreed to host a roundtable discussion with writer Tara Roberts, in which down-low brothers talk about what’s really going on. Although I am openly gay, I was part of the down-low scene for years, drawn to men who considered themselves neither gay nor bisexual. When I wrote my first novel, Invisible Life, in which a young man is torn between his married male lover and his girlfriend, I was stunned that so many African-American women didn’t know that a handsome, masculine-looking Black man might become intimate with another man. Even now, despite the popularity of my novels, which all deal with brothers on the down low, many Black women refuse to acknowledge that some very regular-looking brothers are quietly sleeping with men.
But why are so many of them on the down low? The truth is that most brothers who are attracted to men are desperately afraid of revealing it. Given the burden of racism they already carry, the last thing they want is to add yet another stigma to their lives. Many also fear that if they reveal this aspect of themselves, they’ll be drummed out of their families, destroying their only safe haven in an already unwelcoming society. So they act out their attraction in out-of-the-way places where they won’t be seen.
It was no simple task assembling a group of these brothers to talk with the specific agenda of helping sisters learn the rules of a very dangerous game. Not surprisingly, most of my contacts politely declined. Eventually I found six brothers willing to participate.
But even then I held my breath. Sure enough, two days before we were to meet, two of the brothers, one married and the other recently engaged, changed their minds. The other four showed up as promised. When I opened my front door on a sunny Chicago morning and met them for the first time, my immediate thought was, I wouldn’t have figured these guys as being on the down low. And I’m considered an expert. After a few minutes of nervous chatter, the men gathered around my dining-room table for a candid conversation.