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HIV/AIDS Blog Central

When Will the Media's Obsession With the "Down Low" Die?

By Kellee Terrell

July 8, 2010

On the June 22 episode of The View, guest host D.L. Hughley attempted to school America on why HIV is so prevalent among African-American women. He said with confidence, "They are getting it from men who are on the down low."

Co-host Sherri Shepherd agreed with Hughley, and proceeded to offer her take on what the "down low" is: "The down low is African-American men who have sex with men and then have sex with their girlfriends -- or their wives. They're husbands, as well. It's very prevalent in the African-American community. Very!"


Despite the massive amount of data collected over the years that has found the down low is not fueling the HIV/AIDS epidemic in black America -- including a study released last October -- mainstream media has continued to scapegoat "undercover brothas," allowing its own homophobia and bias to take over its ability to cover the epidemic fairly and accurately.

This incident on The View became an instant topic of conversation in the LGBT blogosphere, with numerous bloggers weighing in, including Queerty and Rod: 2.0 Beta. (Ironically, mainstream media was somewhat reluctant to cover the controversy.) On June 24, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) issued a Call to Action petition against ABC and The View, asking for them to make a retraction for their defamatory and erroneous statements. While their efforts garnered thousands of signatures, ABC refused to apologize.

Last Thursday, The Root -- a Newsweek/Washington Post Interactive publication geared for African Americans -- printed an opinion piece I wrote about why media's obsession with blaming HIV/AIDS on down-low black men is dangerous.

In "The Down-Low Delusion," I wrote:

[The threat of the down-low man] has infiltrated our newsrooms and our common sense. And while it may be difficult for folks to wrap their heads around an alternate explanation, let's start trying. Yes, everyone needs to take personal responsibility in their own sex lives when it comes to HIV, but journalists have a responsibility as well--to fairly and accurately report the truth, not make it up as they see fit.

We have to remember that media -- whether magazines, radio shows, talk shows or, most important, news outlets -- are extremely powerful. People trust the information they are given and rely on it to stay informed. Media shapes how people see themselves and the world around them. And in the case of the down-low brotha, the messages they carry can alter the ability to accurately perceive one's own risk of contracting HIV.

Looking at how AIDS is covered in the media, what are folks really learning? Black women are "learning" that if their man is not "suspect," then condoms are not really a necessity. Straight black men are "learning" that this disease has nothing to do with them because they are not gay. Meanwhile, the two are having unprotected sex with each other while we act brand new about how and why this disease is flourishing in our community.

I also discussed the importance for media outlets to utilize seasoned experts as opposed to misinformed talking heads:

No, neither one of these comedians-turned-talking heads is an AIDS expert. I think it's safe to say that if they were asked to name three antiretrovirals sold on the market or tell us what distinguishes HIV from AIDS, there would be awkward silence and an unexpected commercial break. But nowadays, having expertise (or an ounce of knowledge on a topic) is not mandatory for a media platform. Anyone with a camera aimed at them can spout off at the mouth, claiming that fiction is fact, and it goes completely unchallenged. Meanwhile, Americans continue to be bamboozled.

Had The View actually asked established experts such as the 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 to come on the show, all of them would have shut down Shepherd & Company.

They would have said that yes, closeted gay black men exist, but contrary to popular belief, the DL is not a major force in the rise of HIV infections among black women in this country. And to substantiate this, they probably would have cited the mounds of data and research findings from the numerous studies they have conducted over the years.

I also added that The View isn't the only news outlet guilty of blaming the down low:

Unfortunately, AIDS-related misinformation is not just relegated to silly morning talk shows. Last October, CNN, which bills itself as America's most trusted news source, ran a segment in its Black Men in the Age of Obama special about gay and bisexual black men.

Instead of discussing pertinent issues that gay and bisexual black men in this country face, CNN anchor Don Lemon, Essence Editor-in-Chief Angela Burt-Murray and panel of ostensibly straight black men (none of whom possessed HIV or LGBT expertise) used the time to talk about how the down low is killing black women. Once again, there was no proof to back up these claims, just regurgitated homophobic hoopla being passed off as news. No bias, no bull? Yeah, right.

Hopefully, ABC and CNN are listening.

Do you think that the media will ever get past the down low and start talking about real issues when it comes to HIV/AIDS? Leave a comment and tell us what you think.

See Also's HIV/AIDS Resource Center for African Americans
HIV and Me: An African American's Guide to Living With HIV
More on HIV and the "Down Low"

Reader Comments:

Comment by: maurice moody (Pensacola, FL) Wed., Aug. 4, 2010 at 3:19 pm UTC
Sexually, it is more difficult for a male to acquire HIV from the female. The most risky form of sex in respect to HIV transmission is anal sex. AA females only make up 15% of the female population in the country, but yet comprise 64% of all of the AIDS cases. Where is the infection coming from? Female to female contact? NO! Sharing needles with others? Sure. And a sizable number is coming from men who also have sex with men. The prison population certainly plays a roll. Many men enter prison uninfected but leave infected because of consensual sex or rape. It is pure folly to believe that many of these men do not have sex with women when they get out,and many do not share with their female partners the fact that they engaged in sex with men when they were locked up. Yes, the DL is seen across the board because we are talking about human behavior. However, there have been studies to show that gay black men are less likely to divulge their sexual orientation than white gay males. The DL phenomenon is real and a serious problem impacting the black female.
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Comment by: Rick (North Carolina) Fri., Jul. 30, 2010 at 11:51 pm UTC
I am a black gay men who has done a fair amount of AIDS volunteer work in several large cities. I currently live in a somall town. Unfortunately, I have to agree with the people who suggest the the "down low" is contributing to the spread of AIDS in the black community. When people ask me am I married, I tell them I can't get married because I am gay and it is still illegal in most states for gay people to get married. I have recently been propositioned by several "married with children" black men who are not bisexual, they are closeted and they use their wives and children as their covers. I even had one 40-ish guy black proposition me, and when I asked him if his friends knew that he was gay. He responded by saying that he lived in the same town as his mother so he could not tell people that he is gay. He also made a point of telling me how many children he has.
Suppose that I was HIV positive and had sex with him. That would be another case of HIV being transmitted to a black woman.
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Comment by: Tue., Jul. 27, 2010 at 1:02 pm UTC
It sells.
People need to use critical thinking skills and not just trust everything they see on TV. And just because someone has a degree does not make everything they say is 100% correct
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Comment by: MoreAnon (SoFlo) Mon., Jul. 26, 2010 at 9:04 pm UTC
To answer your question Kellee, NO. In this day and age where it seems like the actual reporting of news and disseminating of correct information has been bequeathed to the talking heads on talk shows ['bequeathed' as if the official news reporting bodies/reps have DIED], there seems to be no end in sight with this obsession to talk about this issue [especially coming from a Black woman that is divorced from a cheating Black husband i.e. Sherri].

Having irresponsible figure heads that are less informed about the issue talk about such issues serve to further drive these "undercover bruthas" into the 'crypts' of secrecy, only to perpetuate the lies and opinions that they are the primary reasons that our Black women are dying. These two need to check themselves b4 they wreck themselves.

As for D.L., I wonder what these initials REALLY stand for? [hint hint, LOL]
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Comment by: Dave (NJ) Wed., Jul. 14, 2010 at 9:09 pm UTC
Unfortunately, despite the length of time that has passed since the transmissability of HIV has been scientifically researched, there are many people who feel they are competent to engage in discourse about how HIV is transmitted; sometimes their views are not scientifically based or for reasons unknown to me, perpetuate misinformation as if it is fact. The only people that should be viewed as credible, in terms of discussing HIV transmissibility are the competent medical clinicians and scientists. Ms. Sheppard and D.L. Hughley are entertainers and not scientists or medical clinicians. Their opinions, especially dealing with such a complex and stigmatizing issue as HIV, should be discounted. If they feel compelled to share an opinion about HIV they should at least become familiar with some research from scholarly journals or after consultation with an HIV expert!
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Comment by: wille (rochester, ny) Wed., Jul. 14, 2010 at 10:25 am UTC
I was watching the view when all this "went down". I was equally upset how gay black men or "msm" are misrepresented and demonized, by the likes of Sherri Shepard no less( who happens to believe in the LITERAL interpretation of the bible). Where's Barbara Walters when one needs her. At least she has always tried to be fair and a truth seeker in her reporting. Please post some links on line where we can write ABC or THE VIEW to express our opinions. Thanks for bringing this topic up and keep pushing it to the forefront.
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Comment by: Matt (Los Angeles) Sun., Jul. 11, 2010 at 5:43 pm UTC
An ok article, but you failed to point out any statistics or information on what is the major force of HIV infections in black women.
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Comment by: Eileen (Mpls, MN) Sun., Jul. 11, 2010 at 12:48 pm UTC
Queerty and The View? Mainstream media? GET REAL !! both are crap - so is this article. Alarmist and racist. Playing the race card is played out and a tool used by many to re-direct the spotlight from the real issue. Many men are on ther "DL" not just, as you say, "undercover brothas." That is it self is a racist statement.
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Comment by: Mikki (Maryland) Sun., Jul. 11, 2010 at 2:33 am UTC
I think when you use the words "homophobic", you give some people the impression that zealots are spreading lies. I totally disagree with your article. the truth is, african american women have a higher infection rate. from the men who keep going back and forth to prison, to the "down low" sisters who permeat the gay culture. you seem really misinformed to me. why did you not mention the total lack of strong laws against pedophiles, left behind rape test kits and other "manly" crimes that allow sex to be the total prize in our world. more valuable than a teacher, a policeman or a firefighter. HIV/AIDS is spread by all kinds of unprotected sex, not just homosexual males. to say that there is over kill about men on the down low is an injustice to the future of our african american race. go to prison, top or bottom. come home, beat your mate, sneak sex with a drag queen, give sex to a drag queen, go right back to the two or three babies' mommas you have who are not aware of your on-going transformation. are there more white pedophiles than black? who can say. but maybe we should say its time for legislation to get serious about sex crimes or murder/suicide committed by ALL males, gay or straight. since many in our world still believe that males are the rulers and women are their tools, when are we going to protect women? i doubt if any of the numbers will stabilize or fall. counsel about sex, promiscuity, not about the media's occupation with gay sex. i dont know anyone who has to have a degree to know that rape is a dreadful thing to happen to ANYBODY and that the excuses or arguments we get into while tip toeing around the real problems we all face is not precluded by a college degree. try to talk about how many single mothers, athletes with newspaper grabbing negative headlines and hollywood harlots, all doped up and the woefully lack of uniform child support laws in this country. then, maybe you will be too tired to lay with your cheating man.
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Comment by: fogcityjohn (San Francisco, CA) Thu., Jul. 8, 2010 at 6:01 pm UTC
Awesome post, Kellee! I'd like to comment on one other aspect of this whole "debate" -- the media's nearly obsessive focus on *black* men on the DL.

Let's put aside, for the moment, the debate about how numerically large the so-called DL phenomenon is. As a gay man, I'm well aware that there are some guys on the DL. HIV prevention types call these guys "MSM," because they don't identify as gay. But I have no idea where anybody gets the notion that these guys are exclusively or even mostly African-American. There are plenty of white guys out there who fall into this category.

As you point out, the evidence doesn't back up the claims that guys on the DL are the reason HIV is so prevalent among black women. For my part, I'd like to see someone acknowledge that the "DL phenomenon" -- however widespread it is -- encompasses men of all races. My personal experience tells me it does, and I'd be willing to bet statistics would back me up.

Once again, thanks for the great post.

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Comment by: cookie ( nys) Thu., Jul. 8, 2010 at 11:49 am UTC
The media has not done their research on hiv infections. I have hiv since hiv didn't have a name. I am a female with hiv I was diagnosis in 1988 but I have hiv longer since 1988 I just didn't know I had it. At that time it was believed that hiv was a gay men's disease or a IV drug user's disease. (FALSE) My doctor called me a liar. I never used IV drugs. My partner used IV drugs I was infected from him. The down low could be one way to get hiv but not the only way. There are other high risk factors that need to be address. In the African American communtiy its definitly not just a down low issue.
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