Commentary: When Will the "Down Low" Die?

Why blaming the AIDS epidemic on closeted gay Black men is played out and unfounded.

New York Daily News reporter Simone Weichselbaum wrote about young gay Black men in Brooklyn and the rising HIV epidemic among this demographic last week.

When it comes to addressing this topic, there is so much to take into account. There’s the high community viral load in the Black community; the fact that gay Black men mostly date and have sex with other gay men of color, which puts them more into contact with HIV; and the impact that homophobia has on gay and bisexual men’s psyches and their ability to negotiate condom use. There’s also that eye-opening study that was presented at CRIO that found that consistent condom use among young gay Black men ONLY protects them from HIV 70 percent of the time.

There’s also poverty and economic instability, institutionalized racism, lack of quality health care, poor access to health care in general, mistrust in the medical system, higher consequences of IV drug use, low health literacy, high rates of incarceration and untreated STDs, such as herpes and gonorrhea, which make people more vulnerable to contracting HIV.

Just to name a few.

But Weichselbaum chose to do what many mainstream journalists with very little knowledge about HIV do: Take the sensationalist route. Hence the title of her poorly written and poorly researched article, “Young Black Gay Men Who Hide Sexuality May Be Behind Brooklyn's HIV Epidemic, Doctors Say.”

Yep, it’s the "down-low" again folks.

In Weichselbaum’s article, she paints Black gay and bisexual men as oversexed trolls who use the Internet to have condomless sex and don’t care who they sleep with, men or women. And Black women pay the price for these men’s risky behavior.

There are so many reasons why this article is ridiculous. The most jarring one is that nowhere in her article do any actual doctors say that these “sinister undercover brothas” are fueling HIV. Not a single one.

And perhaps that’s because it’s not true.

Yes, closeted gay Black men do exist, no one can deny that. But let’s be clear, closeted men exist among every race and ethnicity. Had Weichselbaum taken the time to do a simple Google search, perhaps she would have come across countless articles and data from researchers such as University of California, Los Angeles' Chandra L. Ford, White House Office of National AIDS Policy's Gregorio Millett or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Kevin Fenton, who all have emphatically stated that AIDS in Black America is not about the DL. 

But who cares about science when subscribing to the Tyler Perry School of HIV gets more page views and Facebook likes? Who cares about common sense when perpetuating lies allow for the media to do what it does best: Pathologize Black folks' sexuality, especially gay and bisexual men.

And while this may be just one small article, it's part of a larger more pervasive problem. Since the early 2000s, we have been bombarded with articles like this one and horribly written books and Bill Duke movies and Law and Order: SVU episodes. We've been subjected to talk shows like Oprah, The View and a CNN special (ironically hosted by the now openly gay Don Lemon) that talk about HIV and the "down low," yet have no AIDS expert sitting on their panels. Sadly, we've all been witness to Terry McMillian's neck-rolling and bug-eyed rant (you all know what I am talking about).

And all of this unsubstantiated mess has taken a toll on us.

It’s unfairly blamed gay/bisexual men for “killing Black women” and created more tension and perpetuated homophobia among us. It’s allowed for some heterosexual Black men to believe that they don’t need condoms because HIV is not their issue. Not to mention, it’s told straight Black women that if their boo is not on the low, then perhaps they are not at risk.

News flash: Our reality is quite the opposite. We are all at risk. And we need more messages that convey that. Perhaps that could start with the media and the need for them to do what they get paid to do: Tell the truth.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: Lionsgate Films, Tyler Perry Productions)

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