Everyone Is on the ‘Down Low’ These Days

(I’m often asked what has happened to a particular person, or trend, that I’ve written about in The New York Times Magazine. People want to know what happened to the transgender middle-schooler, M., who was secretly living as a boy. Or they want to know how the young gay married couples I profiled are doing three years later. Or they want to know if teens are still choosing hookups over dating. Or they want to know what’s up with all the white guys claiming to be on the Down Low. Or—and this is where it gets overwhelming—they want to know about all at once. So, over the next new months here at Good Feed, I’ll be catching up with some of the people and subcultures I’ve written about these last ten years. First, the Down Low.)

Seven years ago, I wrote a cover story about black men living on the Down Low. Though the Times is sometimes criticized for “discovering” cultural trends years after they’re over (or making them up entirely), the paper was actually fairly early to the Down Low story. Most people had not yet heard of the Down Low subculture when my story was published, and J.L. King had yet to publish his memoir, On The Down Low.

My cover piece had its critics, as any major story at the intersection of race and sexuality usually does. Some said I had demonized black men, while others said I was “too understanding” of black men on the DL and hadn’t demonized them nearly enough.

Some said the piece exaggerated the link between men on the Down Low and the increasing rates of HIV infection among black men and women. This has proven to be a fair criticism, as recent studies have shown that the link is less strong than alarmed public health officials were claiming back then.

Others said that the Down Low wasn’t real (Ta-Nehisi Coates has called it a “myth” and “essentially a conspiracy theory”), or at least nothing that white men hadn’t been doing for years. Coates is wrong about his myth argument, though I understand why he’s so attracted to it. In the year or two after my Times story, every newspaper in the country seemed to run a Down Low piece, and each seemed more sensational (and more factually questionable) than the previous. I spent much of my time “debunking” these articles to my friends and colleagues, although the six months I spent hanging out with men on the DL from across the country made it clear to me that the Down Low itself was not a myth. Much of the reporting about it was.

As for the argument that white guys were also on the Down Low (and why wasn’t I writing a cover story about that?), let’s be clear: In 2003, white guys were not on the Down Low. They were in the closet. The distinction is more than mere semantics—as I explain in the piece, black and Hispanic men saw the Down Low as one big party where white men (whether gay or closeted) were not usually welcome.

I write in the piece about hanging out with some black men on the DL in Atlanta…

I ask them what the difference is between being on the DL and being in the closet. ”Being on the DL is about having fun,” William tells me. ”Being who you are, but keeping your business to yourself. The closet isn’t fun. In the closet, you’re lonely.”

”I don’t know,” Christopher says. ”In some ways I think DL is just a new, sexier way to say you’re in the closet.”

Both have a point. As William says, DL culture does place a premium on pleasure. It is, DL guys insist, one big party. And there is a certain freedom in not playing by modern society’s rules of self-identification, in not having to explain yourself, or your sexuality, to anyone. Like the black athletes and rappers they idolize, DL men convey a strong sense of masculine independence and power: I do what I want when I want with whom I want. Even the term Down Low… has a sexy ring to it, a hint that you’re doing something wrong that feels right.

But for all their supposed freedom, many men on the DL are as trapped—or more trapped—than their white counterparts in the closet. While DL guys regard the closet as something alien (a sad, stifling place where fearful people hide), the closet can be temporary (many closeted men plan to someday ”come out”). But black men on the DL typically say they’re on the DL for life. Since they generally don’t see themselves as gay, there is nothing to ”come out” to, there is no next step.

The Down Low was, in many ways, a reaction against whiteness—and mainstream, white gay culture. (To me, this was the most interesting aspect of the Down Low subculture, and one that I explored in-depth in my Times piece.) If a white guy had showed up to a Down Low party in 2003 and announced that he was “on the DL,” he would have been laughed out of the building.

That’s what makes what’s happening now so bizarre (to me, at least). In 2006, I wrote a piece for Slate about how some white men—tired of the boring old closet, and excited by the supposed “sexiness” and “masculinity” of the DL— were beginning to claim the Down Low identity. Four years later, the appropriation is now complete: Spend any time perusing sexual hookup sites, and you’ll find countless ads (like this one) from white men claiming to be on the DL. The closet is dead. Everyone is “on the DL” now.

So, six years after people erroneously claimed that white men were also on the DL, or that the DL was a myth, they’re finally kind of right. White men are now on the Down Low, which means that the Down Low has, for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist—or at least to mean anything at all.

—Benoit Denizet-Lewis

Premium Membership, The Good Men Project

About Benoit Denizet-Lewis

Benoit Denizet-Lewis is an editor-at-large with The Good Men Project magazine, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, and the author of two books, including America Anonymous: Eight Addicts in Search of a Life.

Comments

  1. Henry Vandenburgh says:

    Polyandrous men with non-poly wives are more-or-less on the Downlow.

  2. Henry Vandenburgh says:

    I meant polygynous men…

  3. Great story, Benoit.

    Having lived in the South (Savannah, GA) for 19 months, and having spent a year of that time as a door man at a gay bar, I can tell you the Down Low is alive, well, and thriving. I often watched men come into the bar, make out—and leave—with fellow fellows, then later spot them around town with their wives and children. It seems so integrated into the culture—and a direct response to living in the Bible Belt.

    And there’s a market for it. I’ve known gay men who’ll only have sex with married men for the discretion aspect, because they don’t want their sex lives gossiped about around town. (Does that count as a gay Down Low?)

    • daftpunkydavid says:

      i’m wondering why you never thought these guys were good ole’ bisexual…

      • I don’t necessarily define a man who has sex with a man as gay or bisexual. Sexuality strikes me as far too complex for such a thing. The married men I was speaking about are likely somewhere in between. (Horny, perhaps?) Still, the clandestine nature of such hookups seems, to me, to speak of a certain shame/fear of judgment.

        I’ve been approached by married men, but I believe in the power of those vows (my parents have been pretty happily married for 41 years) and can’t get past the potential damage it could/would wreak on the lives of their wives and children. I wouldn’t want it done to me, so I respectfully (depending upon the aggression of the advance) decline.

  4. It’s amazing to me that you actually believe that White men “are now on the DL…after six years!” Your argument that “White men weren’t on the DL” is erroneously biased by your observation of racial and cultural (urban, hip hop, hyper-masculine) exclusivity, when in truth you could find analogous populations and behaviors in White men in say…public restrooms, truck stops, and parks all over America. The behavior(s) you describe has been documented in White men for countless years. “Tearoom Trade: Impersonal sex in public places” by Laud Humphreys in 1970 thoroughly documents men who engaged in same sex behavior with a “premium on pleasure” and no regard or need for “coming out” as they didn’t identify as gay. So if you controlled for race, SES, and cultural constructs you would see these behaviors are all the same in Black and White men and not new. I would also slightly alter your definition by stating that the DL is a colloquial term/identity in reaction against mainstream gay culture [which happens to be White], but it surprises me that you can’t see that other White men can also not identify and reject mainstream gay culture in the same way DL men do, ie. Senator Craig and Pastor Ted Haggard. They’re not “closeted” because they don’t identify as gay and there is therefore nothing to “come out” to and they both have wives, yet they were caught seeking gay sex for pleasure. So, if the only difference is that they don’t look or have swagger like the men you met in ATL in 2004, then that only points to your own biases.

    • Thank you for your explanation about the author’s bias. Now I don’t have to write it. Such ignorant arrogance by the author, unbelievable.

  5. Some homosexual and bisexual men (sorry, if you’re a man who has enjoyed a sex act with another man you ARE one of the two) have simply fetishized their own oppression. This is not about disassociating yourself from ‘gay culture,’ it is about you not being able to enjoy sex without the thrill of being caught doing something ‘wrong.’ The only thing ‘wrong’ with the DL is it being hidden from someone who believes they are your exclusive sexual partner, and the wrongness of that is not edgy, and certainly not manly, it is simply childish.

  6. Great Piece!!!!!!!!!!!!

  7. NORMAL GUY says:

    Henry Vandenburgh says:

    Polyandrous men with non-poly wives are more-or-less on the Downlow.

    Henry Vandenburgh says:

    I meant polygynous men…

    LIFE’S LESSONS ARE SO CLEAR SOMETIMES. WHEN YOU SET OUT TO SHOW HOW CLEVER YOU ARE WITH NO REGARD FOR THE EDUCATION OF OTHERS AND HOW THEY MIGHT FEEL, THEN LIFE HAS A HABIT OF BITING YOU ON THE ASS.

    I WANTED TO MAKE A COMMENT. I LIKE COCK. I LOVE MY WOMAN, I LOVE PUSSY BUT I LIKE LOOKING AT COCK. I CALL IT A FETISH. I DONT WANT TO SUCK IT, OR FUCK IT (OR HAVE IT FUCK ME) BUT I LIKE JERKING OFF WITH A GUY AND WATCHING HIM SPURT. NO CONVERSATION, NO MAKING OUT, NO DINNER OR CHAT. IT’S JUST ABOUT THE COCK.

    SO… AM I NORMAL OR AM I A WOMAN-HATING CLOSET HOMO?

    • Henry Vandenburgh says:

      What are you taling about? And why did you reply to MY message especially? And why the CAPs? I can totally dig where you’re coming from. I don’t happen to like men that way, but so what…?

  8. too true

    just look at dlgaze.com, a new site for gay and discreet men

    full of closet cases

  9. White people are always copying off of black people.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] SGL black men on the down low for the NYT Magazine in 2003, declares the phenomenon over [via] Fail (0) Stupid (0) ';document.write(str);}/*]]>*/ Sep 14, 2010 · Link · [...]

  2. Daily Intel says:

    Benoit Denizet-Lewis: The Down Low No Longer Exists…

    Because EVERYBODY’s on the Down Low. See?…

  3. [...] unui concept: Down Low. Aici. In anii ’90 s-a inventat o noua expresie: down-low, care se referea la negrii din SUA care [...]

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