April 25, 2002
Some health experts believe that a double lifestyle by men, called being on the "down low," contributes to the spiraling AIDS rate among blacks. While figures show that some white and Hispanic men also hide their sexual orientation from their heterosexual partners, for African-American men, the pressure to hide is greater.
"There's very little research here," said John L. Peterson, a researcher from Georgia State University who has studied AIDS in African-American communities. But Peterson said that blacks who identify themselves as gay face ostracism from their families and communities. Many black men are reluctant to admit their sexual identity even to themselves.
The phenomenon of hiding sexual identity may account for recent findings from the CDC indicating that 64 percent of all women who get new HIV infections are African-American.
The mounting number of AIDS cases among African-Americans in the St. Louis area has spurred concern and discussion. While blacks made up about 20 percent of the region's population, they accounted for 64.6 percent of diagnosed AIDS cases. Nationally, more than half of new HIV infections occur among blacks, although blacks represent only 13 percent of the population, according to the CDC.
Funeral home director Carl Officer, the former mayor of East St. Louis, said he has been staggered by the number of young men and women with AIDS whom he has buried and the condition of their bodies when they arrive at his facilities. "This is genital genocide," Officer said. "It is a very serious, painful, expensive, debilitating way to die. I've listened for the last couple of weeks to what biological and chemical terrorism could do. In many cases those are perhaps a mercy killing in comparison to dying of AIDS," he said.
Many organizations in the St. Louis region are bringing in speakers to talk about issues like the down low lifestyle. "I feel so scared for sisters who are now dealing with the invisible black man. We will continue to lose sisters because men will not come out," said J.L. King, an activist, educator, author and divorced father of three adult children. According to King, white gay men have their own churches, clubs and bars where the word can be spread openly about disease prevention. It doesn't work that way among down low blacks, he said.
Many women who learn their male lovers have infected them feel shame, humiliation and disgust. One mother with AIDS, whose lover had HIV when he left prison but didn't inform her, stressed the use of condoms, whether a person is gay or straight. "I don't know one black, red-blooded man that's going to tell his woman he's bisexual or that he has been messing around. Just be aware. Don't be ashamed to bring out a condom. If a person doesn't want to use a condom, then let him go," she said.