Why is it so much harder for black men?

When I asked my roommate if she knew what being on the down low was, she asked me if I meant at Emory or in the real world. “At Emory, it’s just like keeping something secret or discreet but… [the down low] is really about being gay,” she told me. After telling her about Boykin’s description of the original meaning behind the phrase1, she explained that in the HIV positive community, it’s pretty obvious no one thinks the phrase is used to describe a cheater. Having never heard the phrase outside of the ‘Emory’ connotation, I honestly wouldn’t have guessed either meaning.

I have never been actively involved in activism to de-stigmatize anything, but until college I had never really been exposed to the stigma associated with drug use or homosexuality. Perhaps because of the acceptance offered in my community or simply a lack of exposure to the levels faced in other communities, I had a hard time believing that such problems were so prevalent.

In the book Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South, Johnson interviewed men about their experiences over time with or without committed partners. The interviews tended to include details about monogamy, family reactions, how men met their partners and how others had treated them because of their sexuality. Although the interviews occurred in the South and the men involved had all settled there, many interviews included details about partners living or being from somewhere out west (many in California) or the men meeting partners in other places. They didn’t all experience the same problems. Some had a much less difficult time of finding acceptance than others, however, they all experienced some major form of social discrimination or family pressure2.

The South is often depicted as more religious and conservative than most of the United States. In fact, this is definitely the case. Even within the last decade, interviews and research have shown that homosexuality is still a serious battle to face. In Charleston, the fight for same sex marriage hasn’t even reached a point where it’s worth advocating, because more basic issues have yet to be addressed3. Right now gay and lesbian advocates are currently working with police and school districts to promote work place equality and enact hate-crime laws. Promoting these small steps of improvement across South Carolina is their first goal.

There is such a large population of gay men in Atlanta that I have luckily gotten to become acquainted with a few of them and now feel more knowledgeable about and driven to actively support the rights of all LGBTQ people. While across Georgia things might be different, I haven’t seen much animosity toward gay men in Atlanta. I must admit however, that I don’t know many black gay men. It is only through our readings, as well as the stories of friends and peers, that I have been exposed (and only slightly) to the often completely unsupportive opinions of the black community toward non-heterosexuals.

This lack of support is one of many examples of how African American males face more challenges and are given less support in the United States compared to other racial groups. According to a former chair of the Twenty-First Century Foundation, Reverend Alfonso Wyatt, black men and boys face unequal opportunities in “education, housing, health, structural employment, and disproportion in the criminal justice/foster care systems4.” I think a lot of the stigmatism surrounding black homosexuality can be tied to these deficits. A lack of education produces more ignorance in the community regarding HIV, an increased amount of time spent incarcerated increases the risk of having unprotected sex or even being raped, and less access to health care increases the risk of unknowingly transmitting diseases.

In a region of the country that is still so very far from acceptance, these disadvantages compound on black males to make their sexuality a big, must hide, secret. This creates a stigmatism that makes getting tested for HIV at a minimum difficult and embarrassing, but more often simply impossible. It creates the viewpoint that a black man always needs a ‘front’2 demonizing the men that won’t “come out” and say they’re gay.

South Africa just became the first country to nationally recognize a symbol, a six-colored flag, for the LGBTQI community5. Yet even in this country that already allows same sex marriage, the group that designed this flag is still working to spread the word to fight homophobia and promote equality.


[1] Boykin, K. (2010) 10 Things You Should Know About the DL. Stombler, Mindy (Ed), Sex Matters: The Sexuality and Society Reader. (pp. 336-337) Boston: Ally & Bacon

[2] Johnson, E. P. (2008) Sweet Magnolias: Love and Relationships. Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South. (pp. 430-472) Chapel Hill: UNC Press

[3] Parker, Adam. (Aug 1, 2011) Being gay in Charleston: Socially, legally and religiously, attitudes are changing, but homosexuality is still very much in the minority. The Post and Courier. Charleston, SC. Oct 7, 2012 http://www.postandcourier.com/article/20110801/PC1602/308019952

[4] Badawy, Manuela. (2012) Soros urges philanthropists to invest in African American males. Reuters. New York http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/10/01/us-foundations-soros-idUSBRE89018R20121001

[5] Nathan, Melanie. (2012) South Africa first to recognize gay flag as an official national symbol. LGBTQNation. http://www.lgbtqnation.com/2012/10/south-africa-first-to-recognize-gay-flag-as-an-official-national-symbol/

2 thoughts on “Why is it so much harder for black men?

  1. I would have to agree with you about how gay men are treated here in Atlanta. Coming from an area that had little exposure to homosexually, the level of acceptance in comparison is completely opposite. Differently from you, I did know a black gay guy from my area, and we used to have conversations dealing with his sexuality. I remember he would continually say, ” I will never be ‘flaming’! I think those guys are so annoying” along with other statements of the sort. But I remember during my time at Georgia State University, we would occasionally run into each other on campus, and he had definitely turned flaming. By this time we were three years out of high school, and his whole wardrobe and the way he talked had changed. Based on this experience, I would certainly say that Atlanta provides a pretty conducive environment for gay men in general.

  2. J Thinks: I think what your post begins to gesture toward is how oppressions can overlap. When we think about how homophobia or heterosexism might overlap with racism we get a better understanding of what a gay man of color might experience. I wonder too, how race (and racism) might also help shape the understanding of “down low.”? And how does “agency” factor in (remember our discussion of agency in class?) More specifically, why, as Windsor and Burgess point out in “Sex Matters” did no one say that Senator Larry Craig was on the “down low” when he tried to solicit sex from another man in a Minneapolis airport bathroom? Windsor and Burgess explain:

    “White privilege enabled Craig to be accused of leading a double life without acquiring a special stigmatizing label. White privilege also kept Craig from being blamed for rampant HIV infection. Despite the devastation of the charge, his actions were not viewed as emblematic of an entire race of people” (551).

    Lastly, I think you and Team STI make a worthwhile point about the level of acceptance or openness for gays and lesbians in Atlanta proper. Very few cities can boast a (white) Gay Pride and a Black Gay Pride. This is a powerful statement about the strength and resilience of the many gay and lesbian communities in Atlanta. At the same time, this is in a state that voted to define marriage as a union between a woman and a man in 2004. 76% of Georgia voters approved of this amendment. It is the same state that does not give employees of it’s state institutions (like UGA) same sex domestic partner benefits.

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