Print this page    •   Back to Web version of article

Reaching Out!
The Lowdown on the "Down Low"

By Sheryl Johnson

January/February 2004

Sheryl Johnson

The "down low" phenomenon is nothing new. As far back as the 1950s, there have been documented instances of secret societies where men could socialize and engage in sexual relations with other men without jeopardizing their public lives. In the past few years, attention to "down low" behavior has taken on new life, due in part to rising HIV infection rates in heterosexual African-American women. Since 2001, a lot of attention has been paid to black men who are having sex with men, but who do not self-identify as gay. Many of these men also have girlfriends or wives and do not use condoms while having sex. As a result of a cover story in The New York Times Magazine a few months ago, people are once again talking about the "down low" and more important, what can be done in an effort to understand this behavior and eliminate the rising statistics in the African-American community.

Last month, a collaboration was initiated between AIDS Survival Project’s Outreach and Advocacy programs to present forum discussions on timely topics. The program, to be known as "Third Thursdays," will present issues that are important, particularly in communities of color. The aim is to begin to move towards developing outreach and prevention methods, as well as strategies that address specific concerns. Our first forum, entitled "Low Down on the Down Low," presented a panel discussion. The panel included a woman living with HIV; a behavioral specialist who could speak to the rising statistics of heterosexual transmission of HIV, especially among African-American women; and two African-American men who self-identify as living a "down low" lifestyle.

The forum was well-received by an audience of almost 40 persons. Our target audience was representatives from various community service organizations. Many recommendations for providing effective services to this population were received. Regarding strategies, there was consensus that there needs to be a shift towards being less judgmental, utilizing harm reduction models, implementing behavior change, teaching responsibility and identifying when and why the phenomenon began. In terms of providing outreach, emphasis was placed on involving the church and reaching out to parents, as well as identifying the possibilities of women on the "down low." Several interventions were also discussed, including youth education, socioeconomic empowerment, media presence and awareness, addressing homophobia and destigmatizing HIV testing.

Among the organizations represented at the forum was the National AIDS Education & Services for Minorities, Inc. Founded in 1990 by Rudolph H. Carns, NAESM runs prevention programs targeted to African-American men who have sex with men (MSM) in the metro Atlanta area. The mission of the organization is to educate communities of color (primarily African-Americans) on the facts concerning HIV/AIDS and making healthcare and social services available to people of color with early or advanced stages of HIV/AIDS, regardless of their sexual orientation. The programs and services offered include prevention/risk reduction workshops, community outreach, HIV testing, counseling and referrals, client advocacy, substance abuse counseling, emergency financial assistance, food pantry/grocery vouchers, nutritional information, clothing closet, MARTA tokens and long term/transitional housing. NAESM is located at 2001 Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive, Suite 602; Atlanta GA 30310. For further information, contact them at (404) 753-2900 or visit their web site at

This article was provided by AIDS Survival Project. It is a part of the publication Survival News. You can find this article online by typing this address into your Web browser:

General Disclaimer: is designed for educational purposes only and is not engaged in rendering medical advice or professional services. The information provided through should not be used for diagnosing or treating a health problem or a disease. It is not a substitute for professional care. If you have or suspect you may have a health problem, consult your health care provider.