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