Patricia Nalls is mad as hell. Infected with HIV in 1984 by her late husband, an IV-drug user, she’s seen countless such cases in the 12 years since she founded the Women’s Collective, a Washington, DC, AIDS agency for black women. But these days, this sister of Caribbean descent says she serves scores of women who are being infected by men who hide not their drug use but their secret “down low” sex with other men.
“There are so many stories,” she says, seething. “I can’t tell you how many married women we’ve served, some of whom were infected by husbands sleeping with the best man from their wedding or the baby’s godfather. I can’t believe these men are being so selfish.”
Glancing at the statistics, it’s easy to understand her fury. African-American women constitute 72 percent of new HIV cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One black AIDS-services worker calls the impact on his community the “greatest holocaust since slavery.”
Nalls isn’t alone. A year after The New York Times Magazine published its exposé of “straight” black men living on the down low, or “the DL,” black America is witnessing a DL furor, with black women leading the crusade. Though programs from The Jim McLehrer NewsHour to BET Tonight have tackled the topic, DL mania hit fever pitch in April, when Oprah Winfrey hosted J.L. King, author of On the Down Low, part tell-all, part guidebook for suspicious sisters. After King admitted that he had cheated on his wife of seven years with countless men, black women crowded Oprah.com, ranting over King’s “unforgivable betrayal of trust,” while swapping notes on their husbands’ suddenly suspect behavior.
The story has exploited women’s righteous anger at two-timing men, who’ve become the AIDS landscape’s new monsters. It’s too early to tell whether such outrage is the opening salvo in a constructive community conversation about the DL—or whether it will inflame what one black AIDS expert has called “the media’s divisive blame game.”
This much is certain: Fueling the familiar scenario—DL man infects unsuspecting wife or girlfriend—is a people afraid: DL men are afraid that their families and churches will reject them if they cop to their behavior. Women are afraid that they’ll lose their men if they demand honesty—or a condom. And a community is afraid that even acknowledging the spectre of AIDS may break its already overwhelmed back. Yet until those fears follow DL men from the shadows, experts predict, infections will continue.
Less than a man
“When I hear ‘gay,’ I think white and feminine,” says James Richardson (not his real name), 33, a black LA security guard who sleeps with women—and, secretly, with men. “Somebody who is parking their butt up in the air letting anybody stick anything up in them,” he continues. “When [a man] walks into my house [for sex], they’re not going to see any rainbow flags, gay this, queer that, pictures of dudes, pornos all over the place. They’re gonna see a Laker game on a big-screen TV, an SUV in the garage, jeans and Jordans in the closet.”
LRichardson says he gets tested for HIV yearly—and that he’s negative. But he also says he’s had unprotected sex on at least 10 occasions, mostly with men he’d just met, and has had two HIV scares. Though he admits he should wear a condom, he calls the “HIV-conversation thing” a mood killer. “I’ll be getting busy with some guy, and he’ll pull off the condom, and I’ll be like, ‘Yo, dog, we have to talk.’ Then he’ll say, ‘I don’t want to talk—I just want to get my freak on.’ I say, ‘You’ve got to go’—and I’ll never hear from him again.”
Never even engaged, though pressured by his family to settle down with a woman, Richardson says he prefers men—but he’d never date one. “They get clingy,” he says. “They want you for themselves. Whereas if you get with someone who has some place to be, you can just do what you gotta do and split. I like it like that.”
It’s hard to know whether Richardson and men like him refuse to identify as gay or bisexual because they consider those white terms—or if they’ve so internalized societal homophobia that they can’t accept who they are. In March, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s black editorial-page editor, Cynthia Tucker, blasted the “knee-jerk bigotry” of “black America’s casual homophobia” for “keeping black gays in the closet” and for contributing to HIV rates as high as 30 percent among black men who have sex with men (MSMs). “I know black gay men who have struggled for years to come out of the closet, because they were so afraid of being rejected,” Tucker tells POZ. “I find that heartbreaking.”
Tucker isn’t the only one who feels that African-American homophobia creates a wall of silence that facilitates HIV transmission. Tony Wafford, a straight black man who counsels black MSMs with HIV at the Palms Residential Care Facility in South Central LA, says, “I think the hardest thing in the world to be would be black, male and homosexual in America. When you’re black and a man, you’re going to catch hell from white folks—period. Then you add homosexual, and your preacher’s going to send you to hell. Your daddy ain’t gonna talk to you. Your mom’s gotta sneak in calls to you when he’s not home. Can you imagine what a lonely existence that must be?”
Wafford has had it with most black ministries, which condemn homosexuality. He says they keep gay and bisexual men closeted and afraid of being driven from their churches, where African Americans have sought sanctuary since slavery. “One reverend said to me [regarding AIDS], ‘I tell my congregation that the wages of sin is death,’” recalls Wafford. “I told him, ‘You’re a damn fool.’”
The Church of the Open Door’s Thomas Ford, one of a handful of openly gay black preachers in greater Chicago, knows the church’s power all too well. “Due to the church’s homophobia,” he says, “brothers on the down low don’t feel they can come out. The only message they get growing up is that you’ll burn in hell if you’re a homosexual.” Says Richardson of his upbringing, “Someone on the DL is undeliverable. That’s how the church makes you feel.”
Cleo Manago, founder of LA’s AmASSI (which stands for African-American Advocacy, Support Services and Survival Institute), which offers HIV prevention for black MSMs, believes the black community’s homophobia springs in part from its anxiety that racism, poverty and other burdens have eroded black manhood. “There’s a big concern…about black men being men,” he says. “Some of this so-called homophobia is a dysfunctional reaction [to] feeling really humiliated and worried about the black man. It’s disappointment.”
Yet to many, all the homophobia in the world doesn’t justify DL men’s endangering women with HIV. “Part of loving yourself is accepting the risk of ostracism,” says John Harper, a pastor at LA’s First African Methodist Episcopal Church who has ministered to married couples who’ve lived the DL. “You don’t have the right to harm someone else.”
Nalls couldn’t agree more. “We can’t [just] wait for the church to change its way of thinking,” she says. “These men have to take responsibility for their actions.”
Must sisters, too?
Keeping a man
LA’s Lori Sherrod (not her real name), 32, isn’t sure whether the man who gave her HIV got it from sex with another woman or with another man or from sharing needles. But she knows she’s partly responsible for her own infection. She wasn’t diagnosed with HIV until 1998, after the prison holding her former boyfriend Charles sent a letter notifying her that he had tested positive for HIV.
She’d been suspicious long before. When they were together, she had intercepted a letter from the Red Cross requesting that he schedule a follow-up meeting regarding his blood donation. “I was, like, ‘I think this brother might be HIV positive,’” she recalls. “But I just immediately went into denial.”
Sherrod denied a lot. Charles was not only a heavy drinker and crack user but verbally abused her, too. “When we became sexually involved,” she remembers, “he told me point-blank, ‘I don’t use condoms, so don’t ask me to.’ I just went along with it.”
Why would she do such a thing, especially after suspecting his HIV status? “I felt like I needed a man to complete me,” she says. “I did whatever it took to please him.”
Experts say that as much as homophobia plays into the tragic DL cycle, so too does the widespread message that a “good black man” is hard to find: According to a 2000 Human Rights Watch report, one in 20 black men over 18 is in prison—compared to one in 180 white men. A 1999 study found more black men in prison than were enrolled in higher education. “As a black woman coming up, guess what happens to your prospects?” asks Harper. “They dwindle.”
Coupled with that perception is black women’s tremendous cultural pressure to marry. Says On the Down Low’s King, “A lot of women…have always heard from aunties, grandmothers and from the church: You’re over 30—when are you going to settle down and get married? They hear those messages all the time and allow for the people in their lives to dictate what they need.” Gwendolyn Goldsby Grant, PhD, a columnist for Essence, the leading magazine for black women, says, “Women are taught that they’re looking for the other half. They don’t think they’re a whole person.”
Nalls and Dazon Dixon Diallo, a black woman who founded the 15-year-old Atlanta agency Sister Love, which serves HIV negative and positive black women, dislikes what Nalls terms “the hype that there is a shortage of black men.” Both wish that black women wouldn’t let it keep them from putting themselves first. “We still have to love ourselves, to know that we are so much more than we give ourselves credit for,” says Nalls. “If you don’t feel you deserve all that is best for you,” says Dixon Diallo, “then that’s not what you’ll fight for. You’ll accept what you get.”
That includes a man who refuses to wear a condom or discuss his sexual past—or present. Nalls has a tough-love message: “We must start insisting that our husbands, boyfriends, fiancés—whoever they may be—wear condoms.” And if they don’t want to? “We have to find the strength to walk away.”
Change is gonna come
Society’s homophobia and black women’s fear of losing a man are not the only factors fueling HIV among African Americans. Indeed, says Manago, “HIV is just one of many, many issues that we’re faced with.” They include everything from poverty, poor health-care access, homelessness, broken homes and addiction to higher-than-usual rates of diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and hepatitis C.
“If you look at all the things killing people, you get overwhelmed,” says Wafford. “HIV is just another log on the fire.” As Manago noted in a recent interview: “Overwhelmed people tend not to address challenging issues and will go on with life as usual. Life as usual includes sex as usual, with no protection.”
Amid the swirl of challenges, how can the wave of DL infections be reversed? Everyone agrees that the first step is unsparing honesty, starting with DL men: “If you’ve got a wife and you know you like [homosexual] behavior…you owe it to her to tell her,” urges Harper. “We’re adults. This is the 21st century.” Says Dixon Diallo, “It’s important that everyone has a safe space to talk about [their] anger, hatred, lack of trust—you need a place to get all that out there.”
Women, Nalls insists, must get honest with themselves. And everyone agrees that it’s long past time for the church to address the dynamics driving HIV among congregants. Says Wafford, “I told one preacher, ‘I know you don’t want to talk about HIV and AIDS and you think it’s just about a bunch of faggots, but it’s the black women supporting your [church’s] butt. At least you can talk about it to save their lives. Look at it as a business proposition since you can’t see it as a humanitarian act.’”
Slowly but surely, a change may be coming—among individuals and institutions. DL brother Richardson seems to be at a turning point; after an initial interview, he called POZ back three times to talk further. “I never thought I was selfish before,” he says. “Now, my thoughts are starting to change.” Though not ready to date a man, he says he feels “an obligation” to let any woman he dates “know what’s going on beforehand.” Now in psychotherapy, Lori Sherrod realizes how low self-esteem made her vulnerable. “Not to say it’s all high-and-mighty now,” she says. “But it’s higher than before.”
Nationwide, several groups are working to conquer the DL’s HIV cycle (see “The DL 411:,” left). In DC, the black MSM agency Us Helping Us offers a national, anonymous toll-free “DL hotline” for safe-sex information and counseling referrals. AmASSI groups let black women and MSMs open up to each other, “even if it’s really negative,” says Manago, adding that the meetings help both sides “demystify [each other’s] life experiences” and hence “take each other more seriously to talk about how to reduce each other’s risk for HIV.”
Nalls’ Women’s Collective is starting a support group for women who were infected with HIV by men on the DL. And Dixon Diallo’s Sister Love offers not only support groups for HIV positive women but, for at-risk HIV negative women, Healthy Love. “It’s a safer-sex workshop,” says Dixon Diallo, “but we [ask questions like] ‘What goes through your mind when someone’s asking you on a date?’ Everybody has a chance to release some of what’s holding them down—hurt, anger, pain, pride, love.”
Everyone agrees that to facilitate honesty, black folks need love, sweet love—for themselves, their sisters and brothers of all sexualities and their often battered-down communities. “We’re a profoundly self-conscious group,” says Manago of black Americans. “Instead of addressing the pain, we act like we’re hard. We walk hard and say ‘wassup’ and ‘yo’ because our manhood is at stake. We’re calling each other ‘nigga.’ There’s this normalized contempt for black people that we live with.”
Wafford, especially, wants to turn the tide. He has recruited black radio-personality Tavis Smiley to host high-profile AIDS summit in LA in December called “The Price and Casualty of Silence.” He’s hoping to attract what he calls “the Hollywood types, the hoorah Negroes.” He also hopes the event inspires honest talk—and compassion. “When we look at people with HIV, why do we need to worry about ‘Was she or he a ho, a faggot or whatever?’” he asks. “Maybe they’re just a hurt human being who needs you to help them.”