On Saturday, during an interview for a documentary about HIV and black women, the director asked me “What would you like for black women to know about HIV?” I took a deep breath and said, ” Stop expecting a man to save your life. Protect yourself. Buy condoms and use them all of the time.”
Instead of hearing much-needed messages about self-empowerment, we are bombarded with tips on how to sniff out a down low brotha’—“Does he iron his clothes with a lot of starch? Does he cut his eyes to the left when he is telling lies? Is he really friendly with your male cousins? Well if he does girl, run for the hills, he is on the low!”
Why are we so gullible to believe this nonsense? Why do we listen to authors such as J.L. King (opportunist) and Terry McMillan (bitter silly woman) for advice on love, dating, and HIV? Why do we buy into the myth that the AIDS epidemic would be under control, if we only banished the sinister DL men to Pluto?
Because we need someone to blame, even if it doesn’t make any damn sense.
The wildly popular and highly profitable “down low” phenomenon has been everywhere—Oprah, Law and Order: SVU, The New York Times, black thug lit, R. Kelly’s hip hopera, black gossip blogs, you name it. But allow me to show you where it is conveniently absent—when referring to closeted white men.
In my newest published piece, “Cheat Sheet,” I discuss how former Governor Jim McGreevey and evangelical leader Rev. Ted Haggard were never labeled by the media as being on the “down low.” Never were their wives asked publicly if they had taken HIV tests once they discovered their husbands’ indiscretions.
“Society has perpetuated unhealthy perceptions that blacks are pathological,” says Chandra Ford, PhD, of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Adds Rod McCullom, African-American political and pop culture journalist: “Historically, black men and women have been portrayed in the media as promiscuous; it is easier for us to believe it [for fact].” The DL has become, in essence, the millennium’s version of the plantation bodice-ripper Mandingo and the stereotype of the brutal black buck, itching to bed a “pure” white woman.
A new report in the March 2007 issue of Annals of Epidemiology, “Black Sexuality, Social Construction and Research Targeting ‘The Down Low’” reviewed epidemiological studies from 1998 to 2004. Its conclusion: The DL phenomenon is not the principal cause of disproportionately high rates of HIV infection among African-American women. Nor, the report says, is being on the down low unique to the black community. Columbia’s Chandra Ford, the study’s leader, tells POZ, “By focusing on the DL, we are creating divisions within the community, which are very counterproductive in terms of HIV prevention.”
Until the real experts, David Malebranche, MD (Emory University) and Chandra Ford, PhD (Columbia University) tell me that this ridiculousness is the real deal, I am going to bank on using my fellow Trojans–not my Nancy Drew tendencies–to keep me STD free.