Get Out of My Closet
Can you be white and "on the Down Low?"
Three years ago, I wrote a story about black men who have sex with men but don't identify as gay—or even, in many cases, as bisexual. Instead, they adopted the label Down Low and formed a vibrant but secretive subculture of DL parties, DL Internet chat rooms (Thugs4Thugs, DLBrothas), and DL sex cruising areas (parks, bathhouses). Some of the Down Low guys I met were married but had covert sex with men, while others who claimed the label only had sex with men but considered themselves much too masculine to be gay. Most equated gayness with effeminacy—and, to a lesser extent, whiteness. From their perspective, to be an effeminate black man (a "punk," a "faggot") is to not really be a black man at all.
The Down Low was a relatively new response to a very old behavior. Men of all races have long had secret sexual and romantic male relationships, complete with the usual accessories of a double life: lies, deception, and shame. But the Down Low was a uniquely African-American creation. If the closet is a stifling, lonely place for white guys who realize they're gay but aren't ready to admit it publicly, the Down Low is a VIP party for "masculine" black men who will never admit to being homosexual—because they don't see themselves that way. And while men on the DL certainly have their share of shame, among themselves it masquerades as bravado and sexual freedom: They're the ultimate pimps and players, man enough to do their girlfriend on Thursday and do their best friend, Mike, on Friday. And until 2003, most black women didn't have a clue.
But then I wrote my story, J.L. King published his memoir (On the Down Low), Oprah turned King's book into a best seller, and Law & Order devoted an episode to the subculture. The Down Low quickly ceased to be, well, on the down low. And now, in a sure sign of the DL's cultural currency, white boys—apparently unsatisfied with having co-opted hip-hop—are claiming to be on the "Down Low," too.
I knew nothing of this until two months ago, when I met my first white guy who claimed to be "on the DL." He was 24, tall, masculine, attractive, and said "bro" a lot. I met him at a New York City gay club (he had made the trek from Long Island), and I'm embarrassed to say that we sort of hit it off. On the first of a few dates, I asked him where he worked—and whether people there knew he was gay.
"Bro," he said, "I'm on the Down Low."
"Dude," I said, "You're white. You can't be on the Down Low!"
"Bro," he said. "All kinds of white people are saying they're on the Down Low now."
"That's ridiculous," I protested. "Why don't you just say you're in the closet?"
"Because the closet sounds stupid," he said.
I wasn't sure I believed him, so a few days later I went searching on Craigslist, and, sure enough, I found dozens of ads from white men claiming to be on the Down Low. In Boston, where I live, I saw an ad for a 38-year-old "slightly stocky, hairy and kinky bi married white guy on the down low." In New York City, a 29-year-old Italian looking to "take care of a nice guy" who is "kool and looking for some fun" wrote that he needed someone discreet because he's on the Down Low. In the San Francisco Bay Area, a 25-year-old "white boy on the down low" posted that he was looking to "chill with the same."
Benoit Denizet-Lewis is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine. He is working on a book about addiction in America.
Illustration by Robert Donnelly.