Why the myth of "on the Down Low" refuses to die.

Health and medicine explained.
March 9 2007 7:32 AM

A Low-Down Crying Shame

Why the myth of the "on the Down Low" brother refuses to die.

Charles Divins as Chad Harris on NBC's Passions. Click image to expand.
Charles Divins as Passions' Chad Harris

Even in the far-fetched world of daytime drama, the soap Passions is known for its dalliances with the surreal. The show has featured witches, ghosts, mermaids, and, most shockingly, a strong cast of Latino and black actors. As Passions enters its final season, you'd expect black fans to be up in arms at the impending demise of daytime's rainbow coalition. But more than the show's death, what's raising the hackles of Passions' black viewership is the recent revelation that one of its leading men, Chad Harris, is on the Down Low.

Meet the cultural phenomenon that makes epidemiologists groan and writers grin. "On the Down Low" is the term for a black man who is in a committed relationship with a woman and nevertheless sleeps with men. In 2004, as HIV rates for black women spiked to appallingly high levels, the Down Low became the media's culprit of choice for African-American AIDS rates. The hype spread thanks to a slew of ill-conceived newspaper and magazine stories (like this one), and J.L. King's tell-all memoir, On the Down Low, which sold 140,000 copies and got King on Oprah, where he exposed his membership in this bacchanal sect.

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The Down Low theory, as an overarching explanation for the spread of HIV, has been debunked several times over (see here and to greater effect here). Last week, an article in the Annals of Epidemiology took the measure of available research in the field and concluded that "the DL was neither new nor limited to blacks and sufficient data linking it to HIV/AIDS disparities currently are lacking." Researchers don't deny the existence of closeted black men in committed relationships with women or that some of these men infect their spouses. But they're skeptical about the Down Low as a primary explanation for the high rates of HIV among black women. And they also don't think black men in relationships with women are more likely than other men to have closeted sex with men.

And yet the Myth of the Down Low Brother persists. Last month, Bill Duke began filming a feature-length movie about an upper-middle-class family man living on the Down Low. MTV producer Terrance Dean is working on a memoir about his invisible life in which he allegedly exposes rappers who've gone Ted Haggard. There's even a trio of safety manuals: 20 Warning Signs of Down Low Brothers, On the Up and Up: A Survival Guide for Women Living with Men on the Down Low, and My Husband Is on the Down Low ... and I Know About It.

In the face of all the skeptical science, why is the belief in the Down Low menace so entrenched? For starters, there's the phraseology, which hints at some carnal secret society, and is catchy to boot. It also helps that the Down Low is the sort of threat that white commentators of all political stripes like to condemn. Conservatives get to disparage black people's inherent amorality (a band of men is endangering their families to have sex with other deceptive men), liberals can attack our inherent homophobia (the black community is so thuggish that the men can't even admit to being gay), and everyone gets to agree that black America is, in a nutshell, a nuthouse. In short, shaking your head over the DL is the perfect way to shake your head over how awful it is to be black.

More surprising is that black people have lapped up the Down Low story as much as white people. That's because, beneath its veneer of media-bestowed respectability, the Down Low is essentially a conspiracy theory. I grew up at a time when the more hysterical among us argued that the KKK manufactured the soft drink Mystic, the government concocted AIDS, and Norplant was a clever attempt at genocide. The most virulent conspiracy theory involved the "Willie Lynch Speech," a document which allegedly spells out the means and tactics that white slaveholders used to keep their property divided and docile. The speech is a myth, a creation myth, that gives a clear and singular explanation for the plight of black America.

The Down Low is an equally powerful narrative that also fits well within the larger story of our Great Fall. The basic idea is that before 1968, black people were a noble, harried Christian race, but since then we've gone completely Gomorrah. How else to explain that nearly two generations after the Civil Rights movement, blacks still rank dead last in nearly every socioeconomic category of note. The formulas and complex variables of science simply don't deploy with the same power as good old-fashioned conspiracy.

The perpetuation of myths has consequences, though. The Annals of Epidemiology report warned that emphasizing the DL could "exacerbate already high rates of HIV/AIDS" by further stigmatizing a population already under siege and (perhaps more directly) could "confuse and divert the next generation of researchers." When myths start to seem like accepted truths, they affect the assumptions and questions scientists may ask.

I'm more worried about the next generation of black people. The DL simply adds to the distrust that haunts relationships between black men and black women. In the black community, there is an underlying—and somewhat justifiable—feeling that black men have never really been men. During slavery, we didn't prevent plantation rape. Under Jim Crow, we couldn't secure fair housing and income. And today, seemingly freed of racial tyranny, we all too frequently become criminals and delinquent fathers. Tax-paying, law-abiding black men don't need the added weight of pseudoscience and mythology. The truth is already hard enough to bear.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a senior editor for The Atlantic. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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