Can you be white and "on the Down Low?"

The conventional wisdom debunked.
Aug. 11 2006 3:29 PM

Get Out of My Closet

Can you be white and "on the Down Low?"

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(Interestingly, white guys also use the expression as an adjective—as in, "I have a down-low place" to hook up, or "I need Down-Low Head." By far the most common usage, though, is some variation of, "We need to keep this on the Down Low," meaning that if you happen to bump into your hookup around town, you won't bear hug him and shriek, "Bro, last night was awesome!")

Keith Boykin, the author of Beyond the Down Low: Sex, Lies, and Denial in Black America, told me he isn't surprised that white men are co-opting the expression. "It's become trendy to be on the DL," he says. "It has always had an appeal because it refers less to sexuality than it does to masculinity. It's an alluring term for men who identify as butch or masculine. The closet has a certain shame and weakness attached to it. The Down Low sounds more powerful, more empowering. It also sounds like a secret group, or club."

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Maybe so, but white guys claiming to be on the DL is a little like two straight roommates pretending to be domestic partners so they can save on health insurance. While white guys want the perceived benefits of being on the Down Low (being seen as cool, tough, and masculine), they certainly don't want the unenviable choices facing many black men attracted to other men. For all their supposed freedom and masculine power and independence, black men on Down Low are stuck: "Come out" as anything other than heterosexual and suddenly they're a double minority, likely to be ostracized by their friends, family, and church. (Black men still have less economic mobility than whites, making their community connections all the more critical.) Don't come out and live a secretive, dishonest, compartmentalized—but, in some ways, safer—life on the DL.

''We know there are black gay rappers, black gay athletes, but they're all on the DL,'' Rakeem, a black gay man from Atlanta, told me three years ago when I interviewed him for my Down Low story. "If you're white, you can come out as an openly gay skier or actor or whatever. It might hurt you some, but it's not like if you're black and gay, because then it's like you've let down the whole black community, black women, black history, black pride."

I called Rakeem recently to ask him what he thought about white guys claiming to be on the Down Low. "Are you really asking to me to explain the behavior of white dudes?" he said, laughing. "I'm not even going to try." Next I called Jimmy Hester, a white former music executive and an expert on the Down Low. "What haven't white people stolen from black culture?" he said. "But seriously, it's incredibly sad that there are still millions of men of every color living in the closet, or on the Down Low, or whatever they want to call it. I say, let's retire the Down Low. It should be extinct, like a dinosaur. It's 2006, and people need to free themselves."

Benoit Denizet-Lewis is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine. He is the author of America Anonymous, American Voyeur, and Travels With Casey.

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