Culture

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

Despite gay rights progress on many fronts, the problems of black LGBT people are still largely invisible, as they are often shunned by the black communities from which they come.

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:

Next Page

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image