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HIV/AIDS Resource Center for African Americans
Kai Chandler Lois Crenshaw Gary Paul Wright Fortunata Kasege Keith Green Lois Bates Greg Braxton Vanessa Austin Bernard Jackson


This is part of a ten-part article. For the next section, click here. For other sections of this article, see Table of Contents.

3. The Down Low: Been There, Done That

Kai Wright
Kai Wright
Most African-American advocates agree that the "down low" is nine parts media hype, one part reality. They say that the notion of black men "on the down low" (self-described heterosexuals in relationships with women, but secretly sleeping with men) infecting black women has obstructed the community's collective understanding of the epidemic: It reinforces the myth that AIDS is a gay-only disease. It demonizes same-gender-loving black men as, in journalist Kai Wright's words, "hidden gay vectors."

It also disempowers black women, stereotyping them as powerless rather than responsible, capable, strong adults who have an essential role in HIV prevention. And it distracts from the critical roles experts say injection drug use and incarceration play in the transmission of HIV in the African-American community.


Kenyon Farrow
Kenyon Farrow
Kenyon Farrow, who worked with New York State Black Gay Network, says there is no evidence that the down low drives the black epidemic. "A lot of media jumping on salacious tales, without doing any homework, really set us back a lot," he says. But advocates like Women Alive's Carrie Broadus counter that even a harsh, distorted spotlight is better than no light at all. "The exposure at least created a long-overdue discussion about the reality of men who have sex with men in our community," she says.

That discussion, which initially sowed seeds of divisiveness and discord between the sexes, is beginning to bear fruit in more innovative, targeted HIV prevention programs. And while the spike in infection rates among black women may not be driven by the down low, it is true that same-gender-loving black men -- whether "out" or not -- remain the group with the nation's highest rate of HIV: According to CDC estimates, 46 percent of these men are HIV positive, and as many as half don't know it.

What you can do: Just because it was on Oprah, don't assume the down low is the black AIDS bogeyman. To learn more about the ongoing discussion about the down low, check out the Black AIDS Institute or The Body's collection of articles on the down low. If you're a woman with questions about HIV risk, call Women Alive's hotline at 800-554-4876.

This is part of a ten-part article. For the next section, click here. For other sections of this article, see Table of Contents.

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