Myths About ‘Down Low’ Gay Men and Homophobia in the Black Community

The false notion that Black communities are somehow more homophobic than other communities must no longer guide how public health researchers, policy advocates, and practitioners grapple with the impact of HIV in Black communities.

Empire executive producer Lee Daniels has some incorrect notions about how homophobia might affect HIV rates, but his show should receive some credit for its exploration of gay identity in the Black community. Empire via YouTube

In far too many public health research, policy, and practice circles, there is a perception that high HIV rates in Black communities are due to pervasive homophobia. People in the media often affirm this notion, with Lee Daniels, executive producer of the addictive and entertaining new show Empire, being one of the most recent offenders. This notion is overly simplistic and does not advance discussions around building bridges among heterosexual and LGBT Black communities, nor does it advance discussions around improving health outcomes related to HIV prevention, care, and treatment. #ThisIsLuv, launched in February, is the latest anti-stigma campaign aimed at correcting misconceptions around the Black LGBT community, and medical researchers, policy advocates, and practitioners, including those focused on HIV and AIDS, would do well to take note.

Daniels, who is openly gay, remarked at a Television Critics Association event earlier this year that while doing background research for his 2009 film Precious, he was surprised to learn how significantly Black women have been affected by HIV. Indeed, Black women account for the majority of new infections in the United States each year among women. From this observation, he arrived at the conclusion that “down low” Black gay and bisexual men (men who have sex with men in secret), are killing Black women.

According to what Daniels said at the event, Black gay and bisexual men can’t come out about their sexuality because of the extreme level of homophobia in Black communities, so they must engage in secret sex with other men, wherein they get HIV that they later pass on to their female partners.

The role of economic distress, sexism, poor health-care access, lack of transportation in rural areas, child care (or lack thereof), and mental health injustice does not register in Daniels’ views on HIV prevention, treatment, and care in the lives of Black women. Nor does resilience.

In fairness, Daniels isn’t the first person to succumb to this notion of the “down low” Black gay man; it’s not a new narrative, and it’s one advocates have persistently refuted. In his 2004 book, Beyond the Down Low: Sex, Lies, and Denial in Black America, writer and advocate Keith Boykin blasted the myth of the “down low.” While discussing his research in a 2005 interview, he stated, “There is a great deal of hype and hysteria, and we have no evidence that the down low is responsible for the rates of HIV in the black community.” He went on to clarify that the “down low” is “not new, it’s not just the black thing, and it’s not just a gay thing. The issue is how we can prevent the spread of the epidemic.”

Despite the error in Daniels’ views around how homophobia might affect HIV rates, Empire should receive some credit for its exploration of gay identity in the Black community. The hit show is about a music mogul, Lucious Lyon, who is trying to determine which of his sons will take over running his record label. One of his sons, Jamal Lyon, happens to be gay, and throughout much of the series, Lucious uses homophobic slurs in reference to his son. The dynamic between Lucious and Jamal resonates with Black gay men, because many of us have had similar struggles with fathers, brothers, cousins, and uncles. (Daniels has said that his real life experiences inspired the interactions between the two characters.) So to see how their relationship develops on the show has been truly extraordinary. But it is Cookie Lyon, the ex-wife of Lucious, who has a compelling relationship with her son Jamal, showing many Black gay men that there are mothers, sisters, aunts, and other women who are courageous allies.

But back to the Television Critics Association event: The kind of stigma Daniels perpetuated when he suggested Black gay and bisexual men are complicit in the spread of HIV is extremely problematic because of his platform, and because this position fits all too neatly into existing racist myths about Black men, particularly the “hypersexual criminal” trope. These views, associating Black men’s sexuality with criminality, murder, and death, carry dangerous policy implications.

Stigma does not exist in isolation. It informs laws, like the ones that ban comprehensive sexuality education. And stigma isn’t just about personal feelings and beliefs. It can carry significant cultural weight; it has structural consequences. One of the most critical examples of this is HIV criminalization laws.

In many states, if someone with HIV is accused of “exposing” an HIV-negative person, they can be charged with a felony. “Exposure” may even refer to things like spitting on someone, which carries no HIV-transmission risk. These laws are not rooted in science, but rather in stigma. Daniels, in his assessment of “down low” men “killing African-American women” is legitimatizing HIV criminalization laws that perpetuate systemic homophobia and racism as well as dangerous stereotypes against HIV-positive people.

One positive thing that has come from Daniels’ criticism of homophobia in Black communities is the dialogue that has emerged through the #ThisIsLuv campaign, which seeks to increase awareness about the ways Black LGBT people are also affirmed, welcomed, and loved by other Black people.

Founded by activists Darnell Moore, Tiq Milan, and Wade Davis, along with GLAAD, the National Black Justice Coalition, Politini Media, Feministing, the HRC Foundation, and EBONY.com, #ThisIsLuv counters the prevailing perception that Black communities are more homophobic than communities of other races. This perception that Black communities are anti-gay also has a hint of racism, in that yet another negative association can be attributed to Black communities.

The pieces written and images posted as part of #ThisIsLuv have already sparked some amazing conversations about how Black communities love and support each other.

#ThisIsLuv is also valuable because it offers positive and more complex stories of Black communities on the platforms where young people are most active, and both the campaign and the stories it highlights resist narrow formulations like the ones put forth by people who draw false connections between Blackness and homophobia, and by extension HIV and death.

There must continue to be stories shared on- and offline about love: stories from Black LGBT communities about being loved, affirmed, and supported; stories that seek to understand the complex, messy, and beautiful way Black LGBT people exist and have always existed in the broader Black community; and stories that both familiarize and de-familiarize the world with the complex ways Black communities grapple with love.

For its part, the public health community must also take a more active role in these kinds of conversations. HIV service providers and advocates in particular can learn from the stories shared through #ThisIsLuv about how Black LGBT people fit into the larger cultural landscape of Black communities. Ultimately, they could develop a more nuanced understanding of homophobia, perhaps dispel many of the stereotypes that are embedded within the medical system, and improve how they care for and advocate on behalf of HIV-positive persons.

The false notion that Black communities are somehow more homophobic than other communities must no longer guide how public health researchers, policy advocates, and practitioners grapple with the impact of HIV in Black communities. A more in-depth understanding of the ways Black communities engage with and affirm Black LGBT people is required if we are to ever be effective in responding to the impact of HIV in these communities. The #ThisIsLuv campaign is one part of the long struggle to move these efforts forward.