(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.