Debating the "Down Low"
They say art imitates life and fact is stranger than fiction. That's why I find it interesting that about eight years ago my girlfriend (and future mother of my firstborn) was raving about a new author by the name of E. Lynn Harris who was casting a bright, glaring light on those who have now come to be known as "down low brothers". For those who are not hip to this terminology, "down low" means secretive; covert; undercover and in the context of sexuality it refers to those men (and women) who are publicly heterosexual, but are also having intercourse with the same gender behind closed doors. Talk shows such as "Oprah" and books like "On the Down Low" and "Beyond the Down Low" have created a tremendous buzz around this topic. R. Kelly's R & B Operetta, "Trapped in the Closet" makes the phenomenon a central theme of the song.
The exploits of down low brothers was very titillating and entertaining when Harris first dropped his books, but now that more and more brothers are coming out of the closet or getting caught in it, feelings are turning from amusement to anger and paranoia. Recent comments made by Kanye West in an MTV interview calling on the hip-hop community to end discrimination against gays sparked an email discussion between my friends and I on the down low topic, which then became more of a debate. Here are some highlights from that dialogue:
Dunningham: What [should we] tell our young men "Hey its okay to be [gay]?" I'm like the preacher from this article I read the other day... I don't have a whole lot to say about how a person chooses to lead his/her life and I'm not interested in leading a revolt against those of that preference, but I feel morally obligated to speak against it if asked what my view is.
Lionel: Just my two cents... [Down low activity] is corrupt and morally repugnant. I am a Clinton Democrat, but I will never accept or embrace homosexuality so long as there is no scientific evidence that it is genetic and not a choice or caused by environment or emotional trauma. I think that is the center issue in the debate. If the scientific community could show us that being gay was just as natural as being a midget or an albino for example, more people including me would be willing to accept it. Interestingly enough, scientists have managed to map the entire human genotype and have taught chimps to type and answer questions using a computer, but can't seem to find that pesky gay gene. Has to make you wonder if it exists? Those guys are savages and are reeking havoc on the black community.
Rod G: The reasons why people become gay seem to be myriad. One has to take into account both environmental/cultural and biological factors. I doubt scientists will ever find a gay "gene" per se, because homosexuality does not seem to be genetic in the sense that it is hereditary. However it does seem to have a biological component, given that some individuals for whatever reason find themselves attracted (not by choice) to the same-sex while the majority (also because of biology) find themselves attracted to the opposite sex. Also we know that some people become gay because of sexual abuse such as rape and molestation, which brings in a psychological (and spiritual) factor. The gay people that I have talked to about this subject and the others that I have heard about tend to say that they became aware that they were "different" at an early age. When they tried to be with the opposite sex it felt unnatural for them. I am not trying to excuse the behavior of "DL" brothers and I am not trying to deny the cultural influences which do cause some people to choose a homosexual lifestyle, but I am trying to shed light on what is a very complex matter.
A.Dot: I will not defend the homosexual lifestyle, whether it is or is not caused by biological factors. I'll just say that I believe strongly about spending time, energy, and thought on things that we can change... To focus on the "dl" lifestyle while ignoring the plethora of things that heterosexuals do that are immoral and wrong is somewhat hypocritical. I have heard a myriad of arguments about what "dl" and homosexuals do to ruin the black community even on this very email, but i have to hear much thoughtful deliberation on what we as "hetero" black men can do to protect the little community that we have left. How are we challenging ourselves to do better? What are we doing other than pointing the finger at someone else and saying "look at what they're doing." That thought pattern is both simple and reflexive. There is a larger domain of immorality and homosexuality/"dl" behavior needs to be placed in that context. What we need to do is regain our values and morality, period.
Anthony: As one who loves theology and spirituality the topic of homosexuality doesn't fall only within biology. Biology, of course, left to itself doesn't seem to provide a solid ethical framework to judge these issues. I think biology, ethics, and spirituality can offer a more robust understanding as to how one should go about dealing with this subject. To simply make ethical judgments based upon mere biology whether or not homosexuals are "genetically pre-disposed" seems to be a bit dangerous. Especially as it relates to ethics and sexuality. There is the assumption that "biology" is a neutral practice that transcends philosophical or theological bias. Science operates within paradigms. Science isn't a value-free discipline like many people assume. Science isn't an infallible guide. Science is a practical guide that deals with the world as we currently conceive of it. You start with a hypothesis and then investigate and experiment to "prove" the probability of your hypothesis. I am hard pressed to make solid ethical judgments about homosexuality given the fallible nature of it. We need other streams of disciplines to inform us about such matters. It was scientifically "proven" that negros were biologically inferior to europeans. Of course it took non-scientific disciplines (e.g. ethics and theology) to dislodge such foolishness. My point: simply relying on the judgment of biology isn't going to solve the ethic surrounding biology.
J. Adams: As Stephen A. Smith said on SportsCenter Sunday, "Would you like some syrup with your morning waffles?" I would say the majority of those that are on this distribution list that have or presently are casually sleeping with women are extremely self-critical. However the difference between being in a casual relationship with a woman as opposed to being married or in a serious relationship with a woman, while at the same time opting to sleep with men is a completely different equation. You've read the articles in the Atlanta Journal Constitution and I'm sure the Washington Post, and women are extremely alarmed and terror-fied, (yes, i used terror-fied) by the issues that they are confronted with in 2005. I would concur that the bigger picture is the immoral sexual behavior that exists in our culture, but men have been casual for centuries and the reality is that's not going anywhere. In fact, we have young boys participating in those practices. So, if you're telling me that you have to address men cheating in general or even sleeping with your girlfriend pre-marriage, before one addresses or censures men sleeping with each other, then that issue is just as big as trying to figure out how to address access issues in healthcare. It ain't going to happen!
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This truly is a hot topic and has struck a nerve with a lot of "Soul's" readers. I encourage everyone to read over the comments that have been posted, because there are some excellent issues that have been raised in that section. Here is my response to some of the points that have been made:
"There may be some sort of physio/biological link to homosexuality, but even if there is, it is still sin... I have strong attractions to women who are not my wife, but I choose to not act on these feelings. I have the power to choose the right way." - Marc
I am inclined to agree that homosexuality falls in the theological category of sin, but we have to recognize that this is a purely religious assessment, one which is being debated as we "speak." If one does not submit to certain traditional, monotheistic, religious views on sexuality, then the "sin" argument falls on deaf ears. This is why Christians and others can't fornicate like there ain't no tomorrow and then expect gays and lesbians (who may or may not be Christian) to take us seriously when we get on our self-righteous soap boxes (i.e. Actions speak louder than words).
"I can assure you that there is not some sort of genetics factor that makes people gay or straight. People who say that either need an excuse to make it not their fault, or simply do not know all the facts." - Cliff
I am not sure how one can assure us of anything when it comes to scientific discovery, though I appreciate your attempt to do so. I'm sure a hundred years ago, there were people who could "assure" everyone that we would never be able to clone animals and humans. The so-called facts on this issue are in dispute, so there really are no hard facts, if we want to be objective about it. I am also uncomfortable with the argument that says gay people made up the whole idea of genetic or biological predisposition in order to excuse their behavior. I am sure that many gay people do want to find justification for what they do, but given the very real hostility and discrimination and the above average suicide rates among that population, I seriously doubt most of them just woke up one day and decided they wanted to be gay. Do heterosexuals "choose" to be attracted to the opposite sex. No. It's biological and probably in the D.N.A. (not my area of expertise, but I do know that I was born straight). So, why can't we conceive of the possibility that people were born gay???
"What bothers me about this discussion is that rather than a discussion about honesty and fidelity which it should be, it has turned into a debate about homosexuality. Deceiving people is wrong. Misrepresenting yourself and not being honest with the people who have given you their love and commitment is wrong. Being Gay is not." - Unknown
I feel your pain. For most people, however, "being gay" is a moral and spiritual issue, which is not a bad thing if the subject is approached with compassion and humility.
Now, while many of us view a man's infidelity with another woman as common and even... somewhat acceptable (for some women), that does NOT mean that we would be as accepting of our man, havin' sex with other MEN... So, the responsible thing to do is to let a woman KNOW what she's getting into, and let her decide if she can hang with that. If we truly believe "knowledge is power", then give folks the power to decide what they can handle. - Levite Priestess
Amen sister. "Knowledge is power." Your remarks coincide with the argument, "You gotta draw the line somewhere." In no way do we want to condone infidelity in any shape or form (even if in the case of men it has been going on for millennia). but can we at least restrict sexual relations to males and females. Again, a theological contention, but one that deserves consideration.
"I just got off the DC Metro with a dude staring in my face so this may not be the best time for me to address this topic. However here we go... I hate to bring religion into it a whole lot because growing up and even still today many of the pastors and men in the churches are "DL" and in many cases not even "DL" just flat out gay... What upsets me more than anything about this whole "DL" issue, is as black men all of a sudden if you keep yourself neat and well dressed people (especially women) put you in the "DL" column from the start." - WallStreet
[Laughing Out Loud Here] A good friend of mine just complained about being sized up by other brothers on the D.C. Metro (San Fran, ATL, and D.C. huh?), so I guess there is some merit to what he was saying. There's a scandal going on in Charlotte right now involving allegations of a pastor having an extramarital, homosexual affair. We all know about the substantial numbers of gay choir directors and members. These are still my brothers in Christ, so instead of targeting them, I tend to criticize the culture that helps produce overly effeminate and even homosexual men. Though I do believe there is a biological dimension to homosexuality, there is a cultural/environmental dimension as well. This is not an either/or issue. As far as associating fashionable men with homosexuality, that is a bit outdated isn't it? But, as homosexuality becomes more prevalent, so do the stereotypes that come with it. There is another side to this discussion and that is striking the balance between conventional masculinity and the redefinition of it at the same time. That's a whole other topic in itself.
"What is this culture that helps produce overly effeminate and even homosexual men??? I'm not so sure what is it. How do u raise someone gay? Put them in dresses and such?... I also consider myself a Christian, but it's harder and harder to be a 'Christian' when people who tell me that I'm living wrong when they're not living right. Secondly, trust me, this is not a choice. Being gay has brought me so much pain and anguish, mostly by heteros. I did not ask to be this way. I pray that God takes away what's not pleasing. I really don't want to be gay...Remember, at the root of Christiandom is Christ. Are you behaving in the same matter Christ would? Think about it! This banter only increases self-hate...Before you speak out against something you know of, try to understand it." - Chosen Brotha
Chosen, I appreciate you chiming in on this convo. As someone who identifies as gay, you bring a much needed perspective. Heterosexuals spend too much time talking about homosexuality without anyone in the "room" who is actually homosexual. In response to the questions and issues you raise, first, the culture that I feel helps to form effiminate and gay men is what I refer to as feminized theological rhetoric. We use a lot of language, particularly in black churches, which encourages men to relate to God (and sometimes to each other) in a less than masculine way. I'm talking about pastors addressing the congregation as "honey" and "chile (child)" when at least a third of the congregation is male. There are many exhortations for the people to become intimate with God (the Father) and Jesus (the Son) which in our culture on either conscious or subconscious levels has sexual (and in this case incestuous) connotations. A friend of mine actually sat in a service where a pastor told the congregants to "blow Jesus a kiss" and of course he refrained. Also, church by virtue of the larger ratio of women to men has a distinct feminine quality. Heck, even God calls the church His bride, but given the confusion in terms of gender roles and sexual orientation, I am not sure we need to over-emphasize those kind of analogies. I go in a little more depth on this point in "The State of the Negro Church", which you can access below.
Based on my previous comments, I am inclined to believe you when you say that being gay is not a choice, just as I feel that being heterosexual is not a choice. However, predispositions and behavior are two separate entities. We were created as imperfect individuals and we often find ourselves desiring activities and objects which are not consistent with God's perfect will. In regards to the issue of homosexuality, I recently worked with an organization that supported gay and lesbian students as a part of our overall diversity initiative. In doing this work I learned of otherwise heterosexual students who experimented with homosexuality or bisexuality because of exposure to and influence by their gay friends. Popular culture plays a role as well. The more we see the gay lifestyle on TV and in movies, the more accepting it will become, particularly for impressionable young people. Same-sex relations are increasingly becoming one choice among many on the menu of intimacy.
Since you are a Christian, I do not envy you, because clearly you have significant cognitive dissonance over your sexual identity. There is a disconnect between your sexuality and traditional biblical interpretations of such. I agree with Marc who said "there is not a place where a gay brother can be real with anyone about who he really is and actually be healed from his sexual sin." The church is supposed to be that place where homosexuals, fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, criminals, drunkards and drug addicts can all come together and be healed by Jesus Christ, so that we may all inherit the kingdom of God. I had an opportunity to become reacquainted with a fraternity brother who was not openly gay when we met, but has since made that decision. He told me his story of sexual confusion and heartache and I was moved. For anyone to tell me that he is a part of a conspiracy of deceit to fabricate the possible biological and genetic component of homosexuality and that gay people are more immoral than the rest of us actually flies in the face of history. James Baldwin, the literary voice of the Civil Rights Movement was gay. Bayard Rusin, one of Dr. Martin Luther King's primary strategic advisors, was gay. I can acknowledge that fact and still say that homosexuality falls short of the ideal that God has intended for his children.
Though I am not interested in getting to the root of "Christiandom" (which I read as an oppressive European form of Christianity) I am very much in pursuit of demonstrating the love of Christ. If I have fallen short, please forgive me. I realize that some of the comments made on this post were harsh and possibly even mean-spirited, but I also understand the frustration behind those comments, because many men (especially those in church) feel that their gender and sexual identities are under assault. You said yourself that you love this post, so I'm sure that you would concede that it is more than just banter. In no way do I seek to perpetuate hate of any kind, but rather truth spoken in love, even if it hurts.
For more of my thoughts on sexual orientation and gender related issues read, "The State of the Negro Church (From a Black Male Perspective)" and "Signs of a Post-Heterosexual Society."
So, what do you think? Post your comments (anonymously if you prefer)!