The term “on the down low” originated within the African American community. By definition, it describes a lifestyle predominately practiced by young, urban African American men who have sex with other men as well as women, yet do not identify as gay or bisexual. To many, this definition is a part of their everyday life; albeit a double life. With nowhere to turn to within the community, many of these men drift into situations that can potentially put their lives, and the lives of their sexual partners in jeopardy…all because of the secret. Film maker Lee Daniels, director of the recent release “Lee Daniels ‘The Butler,’” says that for many of these men on the “DL,” there is no place for them to turn.
In a recent interview on “Larry King Now,” the famed director said that there is no clear way that black gay men can come out.
“Black men can’t come out. Why? Because you simply can’t do it,” Daniels says. “Your family says it. Your church says it. Your teachers say it. Your parents say it. Your friends say it. Your work says it. So you’re living on this ‘DL’ thing and you’re infecting black women – and its killing us,” he adds.
“The black culture and the Hispanic culture have a thing about [homosexuality].”
Daniels himself relates a story from his childhood, when at age 5 he began to feel “different.” He tells how during a poker game hosted by his father for some of his police officer friends, Daniels came down into the basement wearing a pair of his mother’s red pumps. Daniels’ father was not pleased by his son’s choice of self-expression.
“I got beat. He beat me severely for it,” he says. “But that didn’t stop me because the following Sunday I walked down the stairs wearing her blue pumps – this time with her purse.”
Daniels attributes the lack of acceptance to the African American community itself, and its inability to accept homosexuality not as an illness, but a part of who a person is meant to be inside.
“We are nothing to many people, especially in the African-American community,” Daniels said. “We are told, especially as black men, that we have to live up to certain expectations. The churches say it’s not good. Our neighbors say it’s not good. Our friends and family say it’s not good. I am living in my truth, and I demand that in [my work], too.”
Keith Boykin, commentator on the BET network and author of the book Beyond the Down Low: Sex, Lies, and Denial in Black America applauds Daniels for how open he has been about his own sexuality. He also sees the current wave of celebrities and athletes, particularly African Americans, making the decision to come out publicly as a positive sign, and the beginnings of a shift within the community as a whole.
“What a difference a year makes,” Boykin says. “Last year at this time, Republicans were trying to convince African-American voters to abandon Obama’s re-election campaign by complaining of his recent support for same-sex marriage. This year, African-Americans have been coming out of the closet and coming out in support of marriage equality like never before.”
He mentions in particular actress Raven Symone’s Twitter message that seemingly “outted” the young actress, and the recent LAX baggage claim confession of WWE wrestler Darren Young that he is gay as well. Added to the article on professional basketballer Jason Collins earlier this year, and the wave of African Americans coming out could be on the rise.
“It’s becoming harder and harder to make the clichéd argument that Black people are more homophobic than whites,” continues Boykin. ”It’s an argument that never held much water in the first place when Black history has long heralded the voices of African-American LGBT icons like James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Alvin Ailey, Audre Lorde, Billy Strayhorn, Alice Walker, E. Lynn Harris, Josephine Baker, Angela Davis and many others.”
But still, when it comes to the idea of sexual acceptance within the African American community, the road is still a bit long. But in light of recent news-worthy events, the road is getting shorter. Boykin sums it up best…
“Every time we watch The Color Purple or attend an Alvin Ailey dance performance, we’re publicly recognizing the Black LGBT icons in our cultural traditions. Black America is not just witnessing this changing history. We’re making it.”