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Where's a Black Gay Man to Go?

Keith M. Harris

By Keith M. Harris
Keith M. Harris is an Associate Professor in the Departments of English and Media and Cultural Studies at the University of California at Riverside. His book length manuscript, Boys, Boyz, Bois: An Ethics of Black Masculinity in Film and Popular Media was published by Routledge in 2006. His poetry has appeared in Corpus, 6 (website), Queen: A Journal of Power and Rhetoric, 1 (website), Poetry USA, My Brother’s Keeper, edited by Michael Datcher, and The Road Before Us, edited by Assotto Saint.

his essay was envisioned as a polemic, an elaborate exercise in argumentative controversy.
[1] The title suggests that identitarian politics would have been at play. Instead, I decided to keep the title and temper the rhetoric in order to elaborate the problematic of being that is identified in the title, “In the life on the down low.” What is of concern to me is how is it that being on the down low, how is it that this descriptor, this way of life, how is it that this has become the image of black gay men? Let me begin by way of a quick contemporary literary history of things.

In 1986, the anthology, In the Life, edited by Joseph Beam was released. This anthology was subtitled, Writings by Black Gay Men, and served to launch, in retrospect, a black gay renaissance. In the Life introduced the young, curious, somewhat clandestine audience to some voices that resonated throughout the late 80s and into the 90s, voices like Essex Hemphill, Craig Harris, Blackberri, Donald Woods, Assotto Saint or already heard voices like Melvin Dixon and Samuel Delaney. Some never heard before and some never heard again.

Beam’s anthology emerged when Gay Related Immune Deficiency (G.R.I.D.) had fast become the AIDS crisis and was both perceived and received as white, back when ACT-UP had to be integrated. In the life was dedicated to those who were “in the life,” a community identity in which men, specifically black gay men, or homosexuals, were known as such, lived as such, and contributed to the communities at large as such. These men had devised ways, albeit not easy ways, in which their sexual identity was acknowledged, respected for what it was because it was about community, because if one were “in the life,” one was in a community. Now understand that this descriptor, “in the life,” was not a negation, perhaps a self segregation, but not a negation. By this, I mean that the dialog of being in the life was not with whiteness, in opposition to or negation of “gay,” as much as it was in dialog with black communities. Being in the life signified a collectivity, a subtle way to unquiet sex and life practices kept quiet by larger community strictures, kept quiet for the sake of survival. In the late 80s, early 90s climate of In the life, work like the anthology of poetry, edited by Assotto Saint, entitled The Road Before Us, the anthologies Tongues Untied and Brother to Brother, the journal Another Country or the video poetry of Marlon Riggs, or the stories of Randall Kenan, or more work of Hemphill or Melvin Dixon appears voicing a timeliness, an urgency in the need to be heard, an urgency in the need for community acceptance and an urgency in the need for cultural and community action, because most of these men would be dead by 1995.

In August of 2003, “Double lives on the down low” appears in the New York Times Magazine, but before I address that, let’s look at the “in between” of 1986 and 2003. I want to use the release of In the life and the publication of “Double lives on the down low” as markers, as bookends to an admittedly constructed period of time and cultural production.

Therefore, in quick summary, not exhaustive summary, in summary of the happenings between 1986 and 2003:


Crack has a pop cultural black face by 1986
Rockefeller drug laws bring it home
and the levels of incarceration among black folk
reaches new highs


Easy E
Arthur Ashe
Max Robinson
Patrick Kelly
Willi Smith
die from complications
due to AIDS
Magic Johnson reveals his HIV status


Pam Grier is back and “better than ever”
Thelma Golden scores twice
Will Smith does not kiss the white boy
in Six Degrees of Separation,
on the advice of Denzel
The Cosby Show delimits the black televisual future
New Black Cinema and the hood film rise and kill each other
Spike Lee’s She Gotta Have It to Bamboozled become
the markers of a generation
Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence and Wesley Snipes get paid for doing drag
Issac Julien looks for Langston and gives us a queer look with Young Soul Rebels
Marlon Riggs, Marlon Riggs
Paris burned, we cried for Venus, and then we laughed
Spin City and Six Feet Under have black, gay characters
HBO becomes the site of the visualization
of sex, sexual difference and indifference
but let’s not forget Mapplethorpe
and what he did to us
Papa Bush’s “Man in a Leisure Suit” was Willie Horton
We went digital but the cops were still analog:
Rodney King, over and over again
Time magazine’s was O.J. Simpson
who we should have seen coming
following Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas and
that damned high tech lynching
with desktop publishing
the zines, Thing, out of Chicago, and BLK, out of LA,
let us know what was going on in black gay communities
and a Million Black Men
march on Washington
Pan Africanism goes Diasporic
and who can forget House music
and the arrival on these shores of dance hall
Oprah builds an empire
and the 2000 census told us that
the black population was shrinking:
I came out during the time of “the endangered black man,”
the speciation of race and gender
in the statistics of death and incarceration
RuPaul, oddly enough, introduced me to Zen
there was that brief moment in NY when
men wore skirts
Brad Pitt appears on the cover of Vanity Fair
in a sequenced cocktail dress
Jackie O
are finally put to rest
Toni Morrison wins the Nobel Peace Prize
Meshell Ndegeocello asked for Peace beyond Passion
and in a familiar fashion there was a marked migration
pattern of black folk from the north to the south
Jesse ran twice and Clinton was the first
black president
hip hop diversified and commodified
Pat Parker
Audre Lourde
June Jordan and
Barbara Christian
they all die


Prince became a slave
transmogrified into a symbol
and Michael Jackson became our problem
Jeffrey Dahmer ate white hustlers, latinos, black men,
and two Laotian boys
memory will never serve that correct
Dinkins tells us that the melting pot
is a mosaic
New York crumbles and burns, like something out of the movies, with faces of the dead and missing plastered on the subway walls
from Chambers Street, all the way to Penn Station
Baby Bush turns on his constituency, friends and the world
the talented tenth becomes home
for the new black public intellectual
Apartheid ends
Georgia enforces its long forgotten sodomy laws
Abner Louima is sodomized by the law
Amadou Diallo mis-interpellates and reaches for his id
Halle Berry
and Denzel Washington
win best actress and best actor
at the Academy
this is just a sample
a few of the things that happened
between 1986 and 2003 ... (continue reading)


[1] This essay was originally delivered at Media and Visual Culture: Reading the Black Male Body, at Wheelock College, April 28, 2006.

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DJ Wallace said:

I am very curious about the life on the downlow. I am living with a man, a gay black man, who is very secretive at times about his sexuality, yet is very open at other times. In conversation with him, he shares there are so many reasons why black men don't share their homosexuality. I am very open as a white man, but find it utterly fascinating, this culture of the downlow. I live in Menifee, just a few miles from Riverside. Is there a class you offer, or have an suggestions as to how I can be more educated on this culture?

Posted at: July 17, 2008 7:23 PM

Omar said:

I think that so many people are interested with this phenomenon is that they feel that it is helping to erode the ever declining hope of family values in America. As a gay man who has had the fortunate and unfortunate luck of being involved in these potentially toxic relationships is that their primary focus is on sex, secondly is demeaning in so many different ways. The guy(tri-sexual) will do or say just about anything to get you to give him what he wants and most of the time won't take the time to protect you or himself because if he did that in his mind he would be admitting that he was doing something wrong. I would love anyone to contact me about their views or opinions about this subject as well.

Thanks in advance

Posted at: September 4, 2008 7:18 PM

bridgette said:

There are plenty of black men that are openly gay. I think it is against God, but, atleast they come out and be who they are. It is extremely evil to be having all of this unprotected sex and bring sickness home to unsuspecting people. There is no reason for it. Just be who you are and if you want to change pray. But be who you are and stop all of this decieving.

Posted at: December 12, 2008 5:03 PM

scholar said:

The period the author is talking about (1986-2003) is a period where the black SGL (same gender loving) community came out more than ever. I do agree that both black and white audiences have glamorized and hyped the DL phenomenom, but the reality and the hype are two different things.

I provide the following as examples. From 1986 to 2003 we see the establishment and flourishing of black gay prides in several large US cities-- especially Atlanta, DC, New York, Detroit, and Los Angeles. These prides are separate from the mainstream (white) prides that have long excluded participation by blacks. Second, magazines such as Clik, Ballroom, and others flourised and served a much needed market. Third, the start and growth of mainstream, commerical black gay fiction. Authors such as James Earl Hardy, E. Lynn Harris, Christoper Davis, L.M. Ross, Frederick Smith, and others have found significant success. It should be noted that the vast majority of the authors do not deal in "DL" mythology. Fourth, the rise of a group of black gay spokespersons such as Keith Boykin and Phil Wilson, who continue to provide much needed commentary on SGL issues. Fifth, the rise of SGL blogs such as Rod 2.0, Living Out Loud, Frank Roberts and others, who are able to inform their audiences about issues important to SGL communities. After this period we have seen "Noah's Arc" light up the big and small screen, and many other accomplishments.

I agree that the DL discussion is frustrating in our community. But I think the DL discussion hinges on two points that people would rather not discuss.

1) The need for people (particularly white gays) to continue to hold the belief that black people are "more homophobic" than white people. The DL arc fits nicely into that story-- that there are pathologies in the black community that lead to further pathologies (lies and self-deception) that lead to even worse pathologies (HIV). Sadly, this stereotype is openly supported by many black gay men (note not SGL men) who desire access to white gay men and white gay spaces. The end result is a media mantra that villifies SGL men in particular, and holds all black men suspect.

2) That there is no empirical evidence that SGL men are the cause behind increasing HIV rates of black women. Indeed, the CDC's own data shows that black SGL men are more likely to practice safer sex than their white counterparts. Also, we have not discssed the degree to which the DL is a function of the high incarceration rate amon African Americans, where in prison they are exposed to both homosexual sex and IV drug use. Rather than looking at black culture, we may want to discuss some larger institutions at play.

Posted at: December 24, 2008 12:56 AM

Keith said:

I just wanted to respond to two of the most recent comments posted. Brigette, I am not sure what you are talking about. The call to prayer and be yourself is somewhat insulting given the tenor and subject matter of the essay. With regard to the posting on December 24, 2008, the comments are more interesting and engaging of the subject matter. I agree with the summation of the cause of the DL popular discourse, and I note in the essay that it is part of the ongoing pathologizing of black folk or representing and discussing black folk as pathology. I didn't mention the community and political and cultural events and happening that you mentioned (the prides, Noah's Arc, E. Lynn Harris, etc.) because I was pitting the DL against the notion of In the Life from the late 80s and early 90s (and this essay is part of a larger project that will include discussions of the things that you mentioned). I would not, however, consider someone on the DL to be same gender loving (SGL) because it is, indeed, the idea of the same gender loving from which someone on the DL seeks to remove himself. (And no, I am not going to fall into the trap that someone is on the DL because of their homophobic black family; in fact, I would argue, as I have elsewhere, that there is nothing especially black about being on the DL.) Thank you for your comments. Perhaps, we can speak more.

Posted at: April 9, 2009 7:39 PM

Mr. Topp said:

(Editor's Note: This appears to be a comment translated rather poorly from a user in Belgium. I'm leaving it as is). There are many factors in America to use. Ifwe shall the ...traditional values and racial. Trends such as men of color need to macho. Due to peer pressure not only Blacks the Gay community as. Whole in America for example when transgender call themselves. Gay it makes non transgender offended why? The standards see we may disagree allow me to make. My statements this the freedom of America. The desire to be individualistic in America is problem. And gender is the cause... I am referring to. Attitude of yes woman I shall be specific. Why I ask for response as openly Gay male. Whom resides in Europe were I have freedom
to enjoy. My life but opposite America...status of race. I know many non men of color while living in America. They always was accepted why there mannerism was. Accepted so I do not lose the reader. This important when Black men are successful and single. Not have the lingering macho entrench ego! Your status is in (question_
since the White. Woman has achieve success and single she seeks. A alternative if fall for it when say your Gay! There expectation change I've been. Threw this and I hope my comments shall encourage are men. To achieve success and deal with the ignorance of America. Then the lack of support from the traditional Black. Community
you uncouth with Gays and most Black men. Are bisexual when use to cruise allot of straight men. Attend Gay clubs see Blacks do have identity problems. I when there gay when they continue to ridicule. Men there attractive to see I learn while living in America. White men can be Gay while Blacks suffer? Why the disparity the attitude of traditions. Come on men speak the truth how many. Times have walk around in the
community. And the public resents you why? Blacks can never do this but still. Enjoy the freedom but be aware if reside. In Europe and Australia you can be openly gay. And enjoy life and last comment I'm angered with. Labels especially "Down
low" if you enjoy physical. Nude sex with men no matter the color. Your Gay admit you shall sleep better these days.

Posted at: May 28, 2009 11:31 PM

anthony alexander said:

Awesome essays and commentaries. Yahweh bless.

Posted at: May 29, 2009 11:26 AM

phil said:

Sexuality is not a simple thing. What one may do at one point in their life they may not do in another. What business is it of anyone's what another person does? Why can't we accept that this is not new and has been around since the beginning of man? In the long run society has to take responsibility for the DL as one cannot feel free to be themselves and tell others of their feelings.

Posted at: October 30, 2009 6:10 PM

Bill said:

Now being 49 years old and active in the activity I can attest that no one knows for sure how many males participate or at what frequency. In my youth I had very little contact with younger or same age, most were married or men partnered with women. My experience was not isolate. Males often take advantage of the use of gay men at will when it pleases them. For the most part, it is only a problem when we fall for the otherwise straight man. And I agree with a previous post, this is not race or culture specific.

Posted at: October 31, 2009 7:54 AM