Straight talk about the Down Low


Although he's had to hire a bodyguard, lives with what he says are persistent death threats and has been flooded with hate mail, J.L. King is feeling pretty good these days.

"You can't go anywhere in the country where black folk aren't talking about DL and who's this J.L., and 'What is this man talking about?' I'm excited about that," he says.

Excited because his book, On the Down Low: A Journey Into the Lives of "Straight" Black Men Who Sleep With Men, showed up again on lists of the top-10 best sellers last week.

Excited because Cosmopolitan magazine is writing about him. ("Talk about a cross-over market!" he said, cheerily.)

Excited because he had to hire two extra people just to handle media requests since his appearance last month on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Excited, too, because he is not only at the center of a phenomenon but, in a way, he has become its public face.

"Oh, it's a phenomenon," he said. "Wherever I go to speak, it's packed, standing room only. People don't want to hear it; but they want to hear it. They don't want to see me; but they want to see me. I love it when people talk about me. Because if you talk about me, you're talking about the issue."

The issue? Bisexual African-American men who have sex on the sly with other men and may be - may be - infecting their wives or girlfriends with HIV/AIDS.

The term for the behavior: Down Low, or DL. As in "J.L.'s been on the DL for more than 20 years."

Which, according to this surprisingly hot new book, is true. King has been a player in the down-low underground for quite some time.

Tonight, when he appears at Coppin State University as part of a nationwide lecture tour, he will talk not only about the dangers and deceits of DL culture and answer questions, but the event will be preceded by HIV/AIDS blood testing, courtesy of the Baltimore City Health Department.

King may be the poster child of the DL, and he may be basking in his sudden success, but one of his major goals, clearly, is to slow the spread of AIDS. Public health is as much on his agenda as exposing clandestine sexual practices of men who are cheating on their wives and girlfriends.

Public-health risks, in fact, could be significant.

Over the last few years, government health studies have gained increasing insight into the prevalence of AIDS infection among black women. In the past, the focus was mainly on drug users or women who had had sex with drug users. But recently, the number of HIV cases among women who contracted the virus through heterosexual sex has risen.

One study, from the Kaiser Foundation, showed that in 2001, 67 percent of black women with AIDS got it through heterosexual sex, compared to 58 percent in 1997. Black women also account for half of all HIV cases, in men or women, that stemmed from heterosexual sex. Studies also suggest that 30 percent of black bisexual men may be infected with the virus and as many as 90 percent of them don't know they have the virus.

For some black women just now learning about the DL culture that King describes in his book, the idea that their very masculine-appearing lovers might also be indulging in sex with other very masculine-appearing men "on the Down Low" is terrifying. King gives tips in his book for ways women might spot DL behaviors and identify "the look" such men give as a signal to other men when they make surreptitious contacts in public.

The term Down Low was popularized in the 1990s by black R&B; artists R. Kelly, Brian McKnight and TLC in songs focusing on infidelity. The term, as it evolved, is defined by King as meaning "masculine, unreadable ... It means I've got a girlfriend or a wife but you can't tell I'm having sex with men."

In conducting research for the book, King says he interviewed 2,500 such men around the country. Although there are no studies to back his claims, he insists the incidence of the behavior is surprisingly high.

"Man, I think it's huge," he said. "I interviewed 2,500 real DL men from Baltimore to L.A. I asked them how many men do you know who are sexually active in this 'fraternity.' The average number was 15 to 20. You start multiplying those numbers ... "

Separating the hype from the hysteria is a little difficult, because DL not only raises questions about AIDS and infidelity, but it also raises another taboo issue that King claims many African-Americans will not address frankly - homosexuality. In fact, men "on the DL" do not think of themselves as gay or bisexual. As he told Winfrey, when he appeared to discuss the topic on her show, "It's not about orientation, it's about gratification."

The difficulty of acknowledging homosexuality or bisexuality in the African-American community, he claims, created conditions for DL culture to thrive.

"I have many DL friends who, because of fear of backlash from their church, fraternity or family, won't reveal their bisexuality." At the same time, he said, many of the same men won't admit to themselves that they are bisexual, either. They also compensate by masquerading as macho.

"Look at me, I don't fit the stereotype," he said. "I'm not a finger-popping queen. I'm a masculine, well-educated man. Women go into shock when they see me. They say, 'You look like my husband ... my boyfriend ... my preacher.'"

His reply: Yes, well, just make sure your men are wearing condoms.

J.L. King

What: Lecture and signing by J.L. King, author of On the Down Low

Where: James Weldon Johnson Auditorium, Coppin State University, 2500 W. North Ave.

When: 7 p.m. today

Admission: Free

Call: 888-415-9548

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