The Down Low Effect

By Natalie Bell

There is another side to the stories that occasionally break out into the public, such as with former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey, but more typically only get whispered about among trusted friends or family.

McGreevey, married with two children, admitted having an extramarital affair with a man in 2004, announced he was gay and resigned. Much has been said about men who have sexual relationships with women, while at the same time carrying on a subversive life of sex with men. But what say the women in these triangular affairs?

First of all, African American and Hispanic males are more likely than their white counterparts to engage in the lifestyle dubbed “on the down low” — the term they prefer to gay or bisexual — by author J.L. King in his 2004 expose of the same name. .

The black and Hispanic women with whom they have sex are less likely than white women in similar situations to know that their partners have sex with both men and women, studies by the Centers for Disease Control have shown. This “down low” culture has been cited as a contributing factor in the rise of HIV cases among minorities, particularly heterosexual women. In 2006, while African Americans comprised just 13-percent of the U.S. population, half of all persons newly diagnosed with HIV/AIDS cases were black.

The risk of infection underscores the danger of the “down low” culture. But what women caught in the middle would say is that it goes much deeper than that. I know, having been married for ten years to a down low man without knowing it.

For the woman betrayed, actress Julianne Moore blows the siren loud and clear in her credible performance in Far From Heaven. The 2002 film written and directed by Todd Haynes won several Academy Award nominations, including Best Actress for Moore, and Best Cinematography for Edward Lachman’s technicolor artistry.

Moore and Dennis Quaid play a married couple, in suburban 1950s Connecticut, whose relationship becomes strained when he realizes that he’s in love with another man.

Moore’s character turns to her gardener (Dennis Haysbert) for emotional support, but fights back a desire to be comforted in his arms. He is an African American man and she the wife of a successful television executive in a conservative, middle class community, a tale replete in its social mores and sexual repression.

All of this, a far cry from the public life she has led, the envy of every woman in her community, with the perfect house, and if there is such a thing as a perfect marriage, it’s definitely hers. Then one day – poof – she discovers that she doesn’t really know her husband at all.

Fortunately for Moore’s character, her husband comes to her with the truth. But most women in this situation may never know. Even if they suspect it, they may never get their partner to admit as much.

One may wonder, how can a woman be married to a man, have children with him, and not be able to tell that he likes or prefers sex with men. Weren’t there signs? After all, you live in the same house and sleep in the same bed.

The answer is that often these women are deceived in the worst way by men for whom it is absolutely vital to keep up an image of the happily heterosexual male for his own self esteem.

The down low man hates that part of himself that is attracted to men, so therefore he goes to great lengths to hide it, to overcompensate in the opposite direction. His need to protect his true identity becomes superior to everything and everyone in his life. If he takes a wife, she becomes his trophy and he makes it his business to keep her.

There’s no question that this is the kind of person that our largely homophobic society produces. Read: this is not an attack on gay men or women.

Down low men may be confused about their sexuality, or understandably reluctant to come out; still, they make a concerted choice to perpetuate a fraud that puts women at risk of HIV.

The effect of their behavior can be deadly.

The fastest-growing group affected by HIV is black women, who in 2008 represent 66-percent of women living with HIV or AIDS in the U.S., while among other groups, 17-percent are Caucasian and 16-percent Hispanic.

Natalie Bell is a writer living in New York.


The Café