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On the Down Low

A Journey Into the Lives of Straight Black Men Who Sleep With Men

On the Down Low by J.L. King
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A bold exposé of the controversial secret that has potentially dire consequences in many African American communities
Delivering the first frank and thorough investigation of life “on the down low” (the DL), J. L. King exposes a closeted culture of sex between black men who lead “straight” lives. King explores his own past as a DL man, and the path that led him to let go of the lies and bring forth a message that can promote emotional healing and open discussions about relationships, sex, sexuality, and health in the black community.
Providing a long-overdue wake-up call, J. L. King bravely puts the spotlight on a topic that has until now remained dangerously taboo. Drawn from hundreds of interviews, statistics, and the author’s firsthand knowledge of DL behavior, On the Down Low reveals the warning signs African American women need to know. King also discusses the potential health consequences of having unprotected sex, as African American women represent an alarming 64 percent of new HIV infections. Volatile yet vital, On the Down Low is sure to be one of the most talked-about books of the year.
“A survey by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta found that nearly a quarter of black HIV-positive men who had sex with men consider themselves heterosexual.”
Potter/TenSpeed/Harmony; December 2007
208 pages; ISBN 9780307419170
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Title: On the Down Low
Author: J.L. King; E. Lynn Harris; Karen Hunter


I spotted this brother from my pew, ten rows back. His broad shoulders seemed to take up two seats. His physique was not burly, but the definition of his muscles was noticeable even through his light wool suit. His face was striking. He was a light-skinned brother who wore his curly hair cropped close on the sides and a little higher on top. He had a square jawline and sharp nose, and every time he turned to smile at his wife, I noticed the dimple on his right cheek. She was pretty, too--a petite woman with a caramel complexion and straight hair, which she wore on this particular Sunday up in a conservative bun. He "Amen-ed" every time the pastor hit his mark.

I was new to this church. I made it my business to introduce myself to him after the service. When our eyes locked, I knew. He looked at me just a little too long.

Mike worked for a mental-health organization in the Midwest and was a member of a Greek fraternity, a deacon in his church, and well liked. We hit it off instantly. I invited Mike to go with me to a card party, where he had a great time. Afterward we went back to my place, and soon we were making that connection. We didn't get into anything too deep. He was not feeling me like I was feeling him. Instead of becoming sex buddies, we became good friends. He and his wife, who was six weeks pregnant, would hang out with me and my lady friend. Later, when I had my kids for weekend visits, I would take them over to Mike and Sheila's house. Mike and I talked on the phone every day and would share some personal secrets. We became so close that I would let Mike use my apartment to get with his dude. I spent a lot of time out of town, so I gave him a set of keys, and he was free to do whatever in my space. His office was about a block from my place, so it was easy for him and his dude to slip away during lunchtime. His wife loved me and never suspected what either of us was up to. In her mind, if Mike was with me, he was cool because I was cool.

One evening Mike showed up at my house, crying. He was so upset he could barely hold himself up. He told me that he had applied to have his life insurance increased by $250,000. With their baby on the way, Mike wanted to make sure that his family would be properly taken care of. But he had to take a complete physical to qualify. Mike told me he got a call that afternoon from the insurance company telling him he had been declined for the increase.

He said, "J., the only reason they would decline me is if my HIV test came back positive." A lot of times the only way a man finds out he's HIV positive is when he either donates blood or goes for a physical for a life insurance policy, which includes an HIV test. Mike said the doctor's office also called and wanted to talk to him about the results of his physical.

"J., you know I mess around with dudes." He was a bottom (meaning he liked to be penetrated).

"Do you use condoms?" I asked him, knowing the answer, but not knowing what else to say.

"You know I don't use no condoms," he said. "My dude is cool. He's clean. He has a wife, too. And he told me he was just fucking me."

That's a classic line. If you're living on the down low, or DL, and you're lying to your wife or your girlfriend, then there's no reason why you wouldn't lie to every dude you're sleeping with, too.

"Man, what are you going to do?" I asked him.

"What do you think I should do?"

"Bro, tell you what I think. Let's say you contracted it from a woman. Even better, why don't you tell your wife that when you were on a business trip in Las Vegas, you picked up a prostitute, and the condom broke. Ask for forgiveness for that one night of indiscretion. She'll believe that."

"You think they'll believe that, J.?" Mike asked.

"Bro, trust me," I said. "It will work."

The next day Mike went to the doctor, and it was confirmed that he was HIV positive. He told his wife, his family, and his church the story we'd come up with at my house, and they believed him. They forgave him. The church prayed over him. He kept his job. He kept his life. The black community could accept that this brother got the virus from a woman--even a prostitute. They could never accept that he got it from a man.

Mike lost his lover, though. The dude wouldn't even return his phone calls. He cut Mike off and left him to fend for himself, with his wife and kid-to-be. Mike, thank God, is still alive today, and his wife and baby are healthy. His scare and my assistance in covering up the truth were my wake-up call. It was getting too close to home, and I didn't want to attend another funeral--especially not my own.

Mike's visit was my final straw. Months before, I had had a vision. I was told that my mission was to be honest and to tell my story, but I didn't listen at first. It was a message I didn't understand, nor was it a message I was trying to hear, because I wasn't ready yet to come clean.

At the time, I was a vice president of marketing and sales and sat on the executive board of an African American educational publishing company. I was making six figures and, as part of my package, had use of an expensive house in an upscale Atlanta suburb and a Mercedes-Benz. I had a beautiful apartment and a new Mazda 626 in Columbus, Ohio, and I traveled back and forth between Ohio and Atlanta. I felt I had too much to lose.

Years later, I was still lying even after my wife caught me with another man and divorced me. I never stopped doing what I was doing. I was walking around seeing how many men and women I could sleep with. I was caught up with self. It was all about me.

Once I was divorced, I was like a kid in a candy shop. I was going to adult bookstores, churches, anywhere I knew men were--just to pick up brothers. At the same time, I always had a steady girlfriend with whom I was having sex. But things started to change when I got that vision. I started taking a look at who I was, and I didn't like me. In fact, I hated me.

One night I went home and was getting ready to go to sleep, when suddenly I got on my knees and said my prayers. Afterward I got in bed. As I was lying there, my body froze and I couldn't move. My body was in a comalike state. I was awake and scared. I heard a voice say to me, "You must tell your story."

What?! What was happening to me?

I was fighting to move, but I couldn't. I was sweating and started to panic.

Tell my story? No way!

I eventually came out of this state after what seemed like hours but was probably only a few minutes. Once again as I was lying in bed, the same feeling came over me.

I cannot do this.

I sat on the edge of the bed and started thinking about my daughter, my son, my father, my brother--all the people to whom I would have to expose my life, and I couldn't do it. I couldn't be butt naked before the world. The next day I had a business meeting with a close friend from my church whom I trusted and who knew about my DL life. I told him about the voice I'd heard.

"You know what, Brother King? The pastor has wanted to hold a men's retreat to discuss why a few of the married sisters in our church are ending up with HIV," he said. And you would be perfect to facilitate this workshop, this men's retreat. The pastor does not want to market it as a homosexual workshop, because he knows the men won't show up. This is your opportunity. If God is speaking to you, this is your calling. Why don't you do this retreat?"

"I can't do that," I said. "I can't go before my church brothers and tell them the truth. I can't do it."

The church didn't have the retreat, and over time more sisters and brothers who I knew were getting HIV. I had been to more funerals that year than I care to remember for members of that church, and friends who attend that church and other churches.

I finally got the message the third time the voice spoke to me. I knew I had to be obedient. I could no longer run. I had decided to move ahead and tell my secrets, along with the secrets of all the black men living double lives and having sex with men and women.

Saving lives. It should have been the easiest decision to make. But actually doing it, going out there, was the hardest. I spent two weeks trying to figure out reasons I shouldn't do this. I thought about my family. My mother had passed that January, and I knew that if she were still alive, I could never do this. My dad and I were never on the same page about anything, especially my relationships. He was on me shortly after my divorce about having a woman in my life, questioning why my relationships didn't last more than a couple of dates. My younger brother and I were as distant as could be, and we had never had a conversation about anything personal. Ever.

I knew I could deal with their backlash and what they might say about my stepping out. I was sure they would talk about it at my cousin's farm, where the family goes for gatherings and cookouts. I went when my mother was alive but didn't plan to go again. I never felt part of the brotherhood of my male cousins; there was never a connection.

The biggest hurdle I would face would be my ex-wife and my children, especially my children. That is what kept me in a constant psychological tug-of-war. What would my kids say? What would their mother say? How would I face them? How could I explain to them that I needed to tell the world about my life, my secrets, my personal lifestyle? How could I tell them everything that I had hidden from them? What would be the best way to tell them? I prayed, and I asked God for a message, a message that would guide me through this.

In 2001 I decided to resign from my job and had a friend put together a brochure for me that I called "Secrets of the African American Bisexual Man." I knew "DL" was an undercover word, and health officials wouldn't understand "down low." So I used "bisexual" because that would be a hook to get me in the door. On the cover I put a quotation that read: "Oh, no! Why didn't he tell me?" And inside I gave a brief breakdown of the life of a brother living on the DL.

I wasn't a health expert. I didn't know much about HIV and AIDS or the statistics, but I did know that too many people were dying unnecessarily. I wasn't sure where to start or really where I was going. I just asked to be led. I had been in marketing just about my entire professional career, so I knew how to do this part of it. I sent my brochure to fifty-two health departments throughout the country. Not one responded. I did another mailing. I finally got a call from a director at the Ohio Department of Health, Juliet Dorris-Williams. She said she had received my brochure and wanted to talk with me. I went to the health department and met with her, and her first question was "What is this secret?"

"The secret is that men who look like me, talk like me, and think like me are having sex with men but still love and want to be with their women. And they do not believe they're gay."

"What?!" she said. "Are you willing to say that publicly?"

"I don't know. I'm just stepping out on blind faith. I don't have any credentials. I just know I have a story to tell. I'm a man who leads a double life. I have unprotected sex with men and women. It's only by the grace of God that I'm alive now. Based on my behavior, I should have been dead a long time ago. But I'm willing to share my story with you folks, you professionals who are trying to figure out what's going on."

She schooled me on the numbers--the statistics--and I was chilled to my bones. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the AIDS rate among black women is three times higher than among Latina women and eighteen times higher than among white women. Today black women make up more than half of all women who have died from AIDS in the United States. African Americans make up 13 percent of the population, yet we now account for nearly 50 percent of all new AIDS cases in the United States. Sixty-eight percent of all new AIDS cases are black women, 75 percent of whom contracted the disease from heterosexual sex.

In the past, the CDC did not separate bisexual and gay behaviors. Both were grouped together, and gay overshadowed bisexual behavior. People saw AIDS still as just a white gay disease. However, the women getting infected were your everyday women, housewives and mothers. Heterosexual sex was being reported as the primary reason for these alarming numbers. Numbers that forced the CDC to take a look at this behavior, and to realize that in the black community, many men did not identify themselves as gay or bisexual, but they were having sex with men.

I put a face and a name to the behavior that was infecting some of our women. It's called the DL--the down low--brothers who have sex with other brothers. They're not in the closet; they're behind the closet. They are so far removed from attaching themselves and what they do to the homosexual lifestyle that these men do not consider themselves gay.

The CDC had not identified why black women were contracting the virus in such high numbers, but I knew one of the reasons. Men who are having unprotected sex with men but not labeling themselves gay are also having unprotected sex with women, thus spreading the virus. Women are getting infected by their husbands and boyfriends, who are not telling them that they are also having sex with men. These men are living life on the down low.

From the Hardcover edition.