The 'Down-Low' Is Still Kept Down and Low in Black Communities

by Michael Abernethy

14 November 2011


Norman Chambers is a hot black gay man. Not only that, he’s intelligent and enlightened, a devoted partner who is also responsible. Truly a catch. Not only must he deal with being black and gay, though, he has the added stigma of being in an interracial relationship during the ‘70s, when neither gay relationships nor interracial relationships had gained much acceptance. Yet, he handles all these pressures exceedingly well. You would never know from looking at him, though, that he was born a white Jewish gay boy.

Norman (Michael Warren) is the lead character in the 1976 George Schlatter film Norman, Is That You?. However, in the original 1970 Broadway production, Norman was played by a white former TV child star, Martin Huston, as Norman was a young Jewish man who hadn’t revealed his homosexuality to his parents, played by Broadway greats Lou Jacobi and Maureen Stapleton. With the changes in race and religion for the film, the roles of the parents were taken over by Redd Foxx and Pearl Bailey playing, basically, Redd Foxx and Pearl Bailey, as they typically did. The film also stars Cleopatra Jones herself, Tamara Dobson, as a hooker Norman’s father hires for him; even better, Norman, Is That You? features the film debut of gay icons Wayland Flowers and Madame.

Still, it’s not the all-star cast that makes the film important. The Broadway production was lauded as being one of the first plays to deal honestly with homosexuality, and the film version carries the same distinction. The decision to change the race of the central characters to African-American makes it the first major film to focus on the stigmas of homosexuality within the black community, a distinction that makes it a landmark in LGBT film history. Unfortunately, few major films have ventured into this area since this 1976 breakthrough, although the lifestyle of the black LGBT community is ripe for exploration.

Considering the level of homophobia that exists within the black community worldwide, that isn’t surprising. Films featuring black characters often have predominantly black audiences, so the rejection of the LGBT lifestyle by this audience insures that studio heads won’t waste money on a film that will just be labeled “a black Brokeback Mountain”. Such a movie could never be marketed in Africa, which contains four of the five countries which punish homosexuality with death and over 20 other countries imprison homosexuals. This is not to suggest that all black individuals are homophobic; notably, South Africa is one of the few countries in the world that allows gay marriage. Those who are homophobic, though, are quite vocal about their opposition.

Unfortunately, among those who are most vocal are black clergy. A 2000 study by Griffin concluded that “In the climate of gay visibility in religious circles, African American heterosexual voices have been some of the most intolerant and oppositional”. (“Their Own Received Them Not: African American Lesbians and Gays in Black Churches”, Theology & Sexuality: The Journal of the Institute for the Study of Christianity & Sexuality) This viewpoint was reinforced in 2005 by Ward in Culture, Health, and Sexuality and by Pitt in a 2010 edition of the Journal of Homosexuality. Such a preponderance of religious teachings against homosexual behavior is bound to lead to an increase in the number of black LGBT persons living in the closet.
This is best evidenced by the practice in the black community of being on “the down-low”, a coded way of saying “has same-sex experiences in secret”. Certainly, this isn’t a black-only experience, as people of all races have engaged in secretive same-sex relationships. However, the stigma regarding gay sex within the black community has caused secretiveness that may have become dangerous.

According to the Center for Disease Control’s website, there has been no study to link men on “the down-low” with AIDS in the black community, which has reached epidemic proportions. Still, a study by the Black AIDS Institute, reported by CNN, found that “if black Americans made up their own country, it would rank above Ethiopia” in the number of AIDS cases. What’s more, the study reported that AIDS-related complications is the number one cause of death in 25 to 34 year old black women, and the second leading cause for 35 to 44 year old black men. The CDC reports in a separate study that black men who have sex with other men have the second highest rate of HIV infection of any group in the United States; worse, black men also scored as one of the groups “least likely” to know they were infected. These statistics are nothing new; nonetheless, many black LGBT persons continue to continue to have unsafe sex.

A simple internet search informs that down-low behavior is nothing new, either among male or female blacks. In fact, the first known song to feature the term “down-low” is a song about lesbian relationships that occur after all the men go over to fight WWI. This 1930 song by underrated jazz giant George Hannah discusses one man’s observations about the growing trend of black women sleeping with one another:

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