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

Previously published Slate articles made new.
Aug. 29 2007 4:23 PM

Get Out of My Closet

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

On Aug. 27, 2007, Roll Call newspaper reported that in June an undercover police officer arrested U.S. Sen. Larry Craig outside a Minneapolis airport bathroom on a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct. The officer was investigating complaints of "lewd conduct" in the public bathroom, and the police report says  the Idaho senator gave a series of signals—fidgeting with his hands, tapping his foot in the stall next to the police officer, and ultimately running his hand under the stall divider—that the plainclothes officer interpreted as sexual advances. On Aug. 8, Craig pleaded guilty to the charges. Subsequent discussion of the arrest has involved questions about the closeted gay subculture of anonymous sexual encounters in public locations. In August 2006, Benoit Denizet-Lewis wrote in Slate about "down low," the expression black men use to describe their underground homosexual activities, and closeted white men's growing appropriation of that phrase. The article is reproduced below.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

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."

(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."

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."

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