Slate: Downlow and White
On The Down Low
keep it on the down low... Nobody has to know... Secret
lovers is what you wanna be... What is a man to do in a
situation like this? I feel there is something that I
don't wanna miss."
-R Kelly Song Lyrics
Downlow (or "On the Downlow" or "DL") may refer to any activity or relationship kept discreet or private. Generally, it may refer to any kind of infidelity, extramarital affair, or covert rendezvous. Specifically, it may refer to keeping an act or action hidden or any piece of information a secret ("I'll tell you, but I want you to keep it on the down low").
Downlow is sexual slang for men who are straight (heterosexual), and identify as straight, but have sex with men (often a friend) on the side without disclosing the activity to their female partner.
Some men in heterosexual relationships have sex with other men without the knowledge of their wives or girlfriends. Often these men do not consider themselves gay or bisexual.
The term has most often been associated with African American men. Although the term originated in the African American community, the behaviors associated with the term are not new and not specific to black men who have sex with men. There are reports of rural white men who engage in downlow activity.
Often, downlow behavior occurs in settings and cultures in which being gay is socially unacceptable or morally taboo and fiercely prohibited. While the practice of straight men secretly having sex with men is seen across all ethnic groups, it appears to be more prominent in communities in which traditional values are strictly applied and rigid rules foster intolerance.
What is MSM?
Men who have sex with men (males who have sex with males), abbreviated as MSM, are male persons who engage in sexual activity with members of the same sex, regardless of how they identify themselves. MSM can describe any men who choose not to accept social identities of gay or bisexual. The term was created in the 1990s by epidemiologists in order to study the spread of disease among men who have sex with men, regardless of identity.
MSM is often used in medical literature and social research to describe such men as a group for research studies without considering issues of self-identification regarding sexual orientation.
What is SGL?
Same-gender-loving, or SGL, a term coined for African American use by activist Cleo Manago, is a description for homosexuals and bisexuals in the African American community. It emerged in the early 1990s as a culturally affirming African American homosexual identity.
SGL was adapted as an Afrocentric alternative to what are deemed Eurocentric homosexual identities (gay and lesbian) which do not culturally affirm or engage the history and cultures of people of African descent. The term SGL usually has broad, important and positive personal, social, and political purposes and consequences.
In a 2004 study of African American men, most of whom were recruited from black gay organizations, 12% identified as same-gender-loving, while 53% identified as gay. Men attending Black Gay Pride Festivals in nine US cities in 2000 responded similarly, with 10% identifying as same-gender-loving, 66% as gay, and 14% as bisexual. Recent studies indicate that African-American disadvantaged youths are less likely than Euro-American youths to self-label as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer.
The term AGL (All Gender Loving) is slowly being recognized as well. AGL is a label for bisexual and pansexual Black people. The word's origin is unknown, though it is most commonly attributed to Black LGBTQ+ people who are active in gender/sexuality discussions across social media.
The term "downlow" originated in the Black community, and was originally used to describe "any kind of slick, secretive behavior, including infidelity in heterosexual relationships."
According to a study published in the Journal of Bisexuality, "The Down Low is a lifestyle predominately practiced by young, urban Black men who have sex with other men and women, yet do not identify as gay or bisexual."
In this context, "being on the Down Low" is more than just men having sex with men in secret, or a variant of closeted homosexuality or bisexuality. It is a sexual identity that is, at least partly, defined by its "cult of masculinity" and its rejection of what is perceived as white culture (including white LGBTQ culture) and terms.
A 2003 New
York Times Magazine cover story on the Down Low
phenomenon explains that the black community sees
"homosexuality as a white man's perversion." It then
goes on to describe the Down Low culture as follows:
"Rejecting a gay culture they perceive as white and effeminate, many black men have settled on a new identity, with its own vocabulary and customs and its own name: Down Low. There have always been men (black and white) who have had secret sexual lives with men. But the creation of an organized, underground subculture largely made up of black men who otherwise live straight lives is a phenomenon of the last decade. Most date or marry women and engage sexually with men they meet only in anonymous settings like bathhouses and parks or through the Internet. Many of these men are young and from the inner city, where they live in a hypermasculine thug culture. Other DL men form romantic relationships with men and may even be peripheral participants in mainstream gay culture, all unknown to their colleagues and families. Most DL men identify themselves not as gay or bisexual but first and foremost as black. To them, as to many blacks, that equates to being inherently masculine."
Down Low Memoir
Author JL King has written three books about the downlow phenomenon, most recently, "On the Down Low: A Journey into the Lives of Straight Black Men Who Sleep with Men."
Joe Moe, a critic for Amazon, submitted the following review of King's latest book: The closer a secret is kept, the more powerful the impact once it is finally revealed. Such is the case with author and activist JL King's intriguing look at the lives and lifestyles of black men who sleep with other men but do not consider themselves to be gay. These men live "on the down low," the "DL" for short, and their sexual activities have gained significant notice as the rate of HIV/AIDS infection in black women has skyrocketed, with the vast majority of cases coming from heterosexual sex.
King is a veteran of the DL phenomenon himself and his book serves partly as a social and psychological survey of the other men he has surveyed and partly as highly candid memoir. King was well regarded in his community, popular at his church, successful in his career, and married to a woman who had no idea that his secret life existed. But when she caught him in a lie and with another man, the marriage collapsed and King's long and painful path to self-awareness began. King cites the negative image many socially conservative black men have of homosexuality as an obstacle to those men being honest with their partners and themselves about who they are.
Among the more intriguing elements of "On the Down Low" are the peculiar approaches men on the DL have to the sexual act, seeking a strictly physical sexual relationship with their secret male partners while remaining in more traditional arrangements with women. Whether this discrepancy is a product of scrupulously guarded secrecy and shame or the natural preference of an understudied sexual identity is one of the numerous questions raised by this book. Though the infection statistics make the DL a huge public health issue, King is neither a sociologist nor a medical professional. And while a more clinical look at this issue would be welcome, King accomplished what he set out to do: provide light and insight into a world that so many have worked so hard to keep in the shadows.