BLACK WOMEN are talking about it in book clubs and at hair salons, warning each other in chat rooms and mass e-mails, lamenting it at social gatherings and in support groups. At parties, they whisper and wonder who among the men present might be "on the down-low." They search Web sites reserved for men who want to date "straight-looking, straight-acting" men in hopes that they won't find pictures of their husbands or boyfriends.
Is it any wonder that when the annual U.N. report on the global AIDS epidemic was released last week -- in time for World AIDS Day today -- showing sky-high AIDS infection rates among black women in the United States, few informed black women around the country were surprised? The report found that AIDS rates are rising among all women around the globe, and that women make up nearly 50 percent of the 37.2 million infected adults worldwide. And 72 percent of all recent HIV cases among women in the United States are among black women.
In Washington and Baltimore, the infection rates are even higher than the national average. A stunning 94 percent of all women with HIV in Washington are black. In Baltimore, black women make up 83 percent of cases among all women with HIV. The statistics are cited so often that many black women know them by heart, and their blood boils every time the numbers are repeated.
The HIV-infected women are not mostly prostitutes or intravenous drug users with high-risk lifestyles. Many are ordinary black women: secretaries and lawyers, teachers and social workers, artists and actresses, sales clerks and brokers, college students and police officers -- women of varied socioeconomic backgrounds who married or dated black men who secretly have sex with other men, according to researchers, media accounts and AIDS groups.
The U.N. report says the main reason for the increased rate of infection among American women "is the often undisclosed risky behavior of their male partners."
In Maryland, the AIDS rate among black women through intravenous drug use has dropped while infection through heterosexual contact has increased. In 2001, for example, 41.2 percent of black women with HIV were categorized as intravenous drug users while 57.5 were classified as infected through heterosexual contact. By 2003, the trend had shifted dramatically, with 29.7 of the cases attributed to IV drug use and 69.7 percent to heterosexual contact, according to the state health department. D.C. reports similar trends.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that of black women who were diagnosed with HIV from 1999 to 2002 in 29 states, nearly 82 percent were infected through heterosexual contact.
It's not surprising that the women are being infected at disproportionately high rates in the Baltimore and Washington areas. Both cities have majority-black populations, and the Washington area has large black gay and bisexual male populations.
AIDS is among the top three causes of death for black American women 35 to 44 years old, according to UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS. It's the leading cause of death for black American women 25 to 34 years old.
While those numbers have raised the ire of black women, the lack of sustained public outcry from the black community is surprising and frustrating. For months, black women have stewed furiously as they watched these men on the "down-low" parade themselves on Oprah Winfrey's show and unapologetically blame women for falling for them.
They say black women are so desperate for partners that they overlook the signs that something is amiss with their men, as if these men had red flags waving over their heads. The men apparently reason that their extracurricular, same-sex activities are not the business of their wives or girlfriends. They insist they are simply men who occasionally enjoy the company of other men.
More infuriating, they delude themselves and their female mates in a dangerous attempt to prove their authenticity as "real men" to relatives and friends who make up a black community that is still largely intolerant of homosexuality in general and gay males in particular.
The less shy among the men have written best sellers detailing their sexual deceitfulness, bragged about it to newspaper reporters and lied their way through one relationship after another with unsuspecting women. Some, like those who appeared on Oprah, have done so using their real names, but most have done so anonymously.
Consequently, debate about the "down-low" lifestyle is making its way into the mainstream. Yet some in the black community would prefer it stay in the shadows, where it has thrived, for fear that it will become yet another negative mark on the image of all black men and turn the perception of AIDS from a "gay disease" to a "black disease." Those concerns are valid, but are outweighed by black women being sentenced to death by lying men.
At the same time, straight black men are angry that they are viewed and judged through the prism of the "down-low," assumed guilty until proved otherwise. They complain about being grilled about their sex lives on first dates, asked transparently leading questions before even exchanging phone numbers with women they've just met, ordered to produce AIDS test results before relationships move into personal territory. Old-fashioned romance and courtship have been turned on their head in the "down-low" era, corrupted by a do-or-die diplomacy. This is good.
It's time for all black women -- including respected authors, activists, celebrities and members of Congress -- to fight back, publicly, to collectively shame these men, berate them, threaten them with lawsuits and get them to stop the killing. The larger black community should come together to combat this problem, just as it has to stop crime and other social ills in some black communities. This is a form of black-on-black crime that is not random and can be prevented.
All of this doesn't mean that an open debate about men on the "down-low" should be an excuse to attack or blame openly gay black men. But there's every reason to abhor undercover men trapped in their stubborn and selfish self-delusion. They are not only "down-low," they are lowdown. Real men don't knowingly put their women in harm's way; they protect them at all cost.
Efforts led by black women to combat the problem may be strongly criticized or even condemned. There will be accusations that they are hurting black men's already maligned image in white America. They might be dismissed as misguided, angry black women and haters of black men. The women's response should be: "We love black men, those hundreds of thousands of good, loving, honorable black men, who are honest with themselves and with us, who respect the expectations of their relationships and the vows of their marriages. We know more of them than we can count; they are our friends, our fathers and brothers, our uncles and male cousins, our brothers-in-law, our mentors. They are men we respect and admire."
Some people believe black women are overreacting and point out that few AIDS studies have conclusively placed cause and effect at the feet of men on the "down-low." Intravenous drug use by men is also a factor, as are, in some cases, poverty, lack of education and access to health care. But the bottom line is women are being lied to -- a lot. They're scared to death, and they should be. But they should not be forgetting the protection that condoms offer.
Though being on the "down-low" is a relatively new term, it is by no means a new practice, nor is it restricted to black men. White men -- indeed men of all races and cultures -- practice it, too, but they call it being in the closet. White men, because of their privileged status in this country, are freer to be openly gay, and if closeted don't seem to have to go through as many machinations to redefine what is essentially a gay sensibility.
The stigma of being gay is much more pronounced and more harshly denounced in the black community, especially in the black church. This disapproval is reinforced in black homes, further driving underground gay men who are desperately afraid of losing the acceptance and respect of loved ones. Black ministers have one of the most influential bully pulpits in the black community. So why don't more of them speak out about this issue? They behave as if gay men -- both open and closeted -- aren't in their churches.
Black pastors should come together to attack the problem. Those clergy who are speaking up should be lauded. But, so far, the chorus isn't loud enough. The task has been left to media that often don't reach the majority of black people. Some of the reporting has been presented through the skewed lens of people with little understanding of the black community, and in some instances, the coverage has been more a voyeuristic journey than a public service.
Black women should not be fighting this battle alone. Ministers and other symbolic black leaders should be standing with them. If not, the women will have to handle it on their own, or die trying.
Marjorie Valbrun is an editorial writer for The Sun.