"AIDS is the number one cause of death
for African Americans between the ages of 25 and 44. That is
startling.... Today you're going to hear many reasons why AIDS
is on the rise again. And here's a shocker. It's one of the
big reasons why so many women are getting AIDS: Their husbands
and boyfriends are having secret sex with other men... OK? OK?
This lifestyle even has a name. It's called living on the down
low. Have you heard about it?…" 
The date was April 16, 2004. The words were
those of Oprah Winfrey leading off that Friday’s version of her
long running syndicated daily TV show. But instead of information
on the promised “many ways you can get AIDS,” what Oprah’s audience
got was an hour of disinformation, stereotyping and hucksterism.
They got just one way to avoid the deadly infection, from one
source: secretive and predatory bisexual black men, “Living on
the Down Low.”
During that hour, Oprah and her guest, J.L.
King, the author of what became, thanks to exposure on Oprah’
TV show and web site, a best selling book, did incalculable and
lasting damage to the battle for HIV-AIDS prevention, treatment,
and understanding of the epidemic in the African American community.
Huckster J.L. King portrayed himself as a
typical example of a “down low brutha,” supposedly reformed just
enough to want to sell his book and services as a speaker, passing
on tidbits of useful information such as where he and other “down
low bruthas” go to meet each other:
Mr. KING: He could be
available and he could be part of the society, this invisible
fraternity. I'm going to go into a church. I can go anywhere in
the country and find out where churches--where most of the guys
are or where I can make that connection and that's where I'm going
to go. You're not going to find me in no gay club because I have
nothing to do with the gay culture.
Mr. KING: That's them. That's their thing.
WINFREY: OK. So you would go to a church.
Mr. KING: I would go to a church. There's
be one--I--I can go to the church, a gym or a grocery store.
WINFREY: Or a grocery store.
Mr. KING: Anywhere. Anywhere, 'cause
Among the sage bits of advice
King had for black women on the lookout for signs of “down-lowness”
in their sweethearts and spouses, was to “watch their eyes,” pay
attention to their gay friends, to follow them around.
WINFREY: But let's just say what should
you be looking for to figure out if your husband or boyfriend
is living on the down low? You, who said that you have been
Mr. KING: Yeah.
WINFREY: ...by guys who were on the down
low, so how is a woman who is, number one, in love, going though
the motions of, you know--how--you know, the daily routine,
'cause how would your wife have--have known?
Mr. KING: Women have a--a--an intuition,
a sixth sense, that something is not right in their home. And
they will follow their intuition and really start...
WINFREY: Well, she literally followed
Mr. KING: Yeah.
WINFREY: ...to the--yeah.
Mr. KING: Yeah, she got nosy.
Mr. KING: If women really want to find
out, if they really want to know what their man is all about
Mr. King isn’t selling public health advice
– he’s selling public hysteria, and thanks to his exposure on
the Oprah show, King now makes a good living off it.
Although Oprah Winfrey is not
a public health professional, what she says and what she allows
to be said on her show concerning the AIDS epidemic definitely
matters. According to the Black
Aids Foundation, one of whose representatives did appear in
the final minutes of the April 16, 2004 Oprah show, the number
of print and broadcast news stories about the domestic AIDS epidemic
declined by 57% between 1997 and 2002, during which time the occurrence
of new HIV-AIDS cases among whites declined. Since then, the
incidence of new HIV-AIDS cases has spiked in the African American
community, but without an attendant increase in coverage. The
Family Foundation confirms that it is the popular media which
provide the public with most of what they know about the epidemic.
It’s not Oprah’s fault that news we can use
about the HIV-AIDS epidemic in black America is so scarce. But
it is precisely the lack of information about this burgeoning
public health crisis which imposes moral and ethical responsibilities
on communicators and broadcasters, especially those with large
audiences directly affected by the epidemic to get it right.
The Oprah show and fearmongering AIDS hustler J.L. King instead
got it very, very wrong. The real lowdown on the down low is
that it just ain’t true. Most of the existing HIV-AIDS cases
are not gay men, and hedonistic bisexual black men on the DL are
NOT the major vector of virus transmission to black women.
Is it True? Does it Matter?
Oprah’s declaration that secretive and predatory
bisexual black men, of whom author J.L. King offered himself as
a typical example, were in some large part responsible for the
AIDS epidemic – “one of the big reasons why so many women are
getting AIDS” – was then and remains today factually untrue. BC
will not speculate on how the fraudulent nature of this claim
eluded the Oprah show’s producers some 17 months ago. But for
a good while now, anyone with Internet access has been able to
bring up the search engine www.Google.com and type in the terms “HIV-AIDS
+ downlow” (without the quotes). The topmost result is a page
from the Center for Disease Control titled “FAQ – Men
on the Down Low.
It says, in part:
What are the sexual risk
factors associated with being on the down low?
Much of the media attention about men on
the down low and HIV/AIDS has focused on the concept of a transmission
bridge between bisexual men and heterosexual women. Some women
have become infected through sexual contact with bisexual men.1 However, many
questions have not yet been answered, including:
- Do men on the down low engage in fewer
or more sexual risk behaviors than men who are not on the down
- Do people other than bisexually active
men who do not disclose their behavior to sex partners identify
with the down low?
What are the implications
for HIV prevention?
The phenomenon of men on the down low has
gained much attention in recent years; however, there are
no data to confirm or refute publicized accounts of HIV risk behavior
associated with these men. What is clear is that women, men,
and children of minority races and ethnicities are disproportionately
affected by HIV and AIDS and that all persons need to protect
themselves and others from getting or transmitting HIV.
There it is in black and white. When you ask
the Centers for Disease Control about this “down low” stuff the
first things they tell you are that they don’t know whether or not
“DL bruthas” account for more HIV transmission to women than men
who inject drugs. They don’t know whether DL bruthas are more likely
to be HIV infected than other men, including exclusively heterosexual
men. There is no data to back up Oprah’s assertion that DL behavior
is “one of the big reasons why so many women are getting AIDS.”
We at BC are not the first
to note that the Oprah Winfrey show and Down-Low author
J.L. King are in deep disagreement with the Center for Disease Control,
and with the known facts of the AIDS epidemic. Of the eight
medical doctors, public health professionals, HIV-AIDS treatment
and testing providers and advocates on the case level and the policy
level whom BC interviewed for this article, not
one could be found to co-sign the notion that “down low bruthas”
are chiefly responsible for the epidemic of HIV-AIDS among black
We humbly suggest that Oprah owes her audience
a sincere and profound apology for popularizing this damaging myth,
and a follow-up show that features real doctors, real HIV researchers,
real public health professionals who minister to the epidemic on
a daily basis, along with real advocates of testing, treatment,
healing and prevention. A great place to start might be someone
from the Black AIDS Foundation, who only got a handful of words
in edgewise in the final moments of the infamous “down low” show.
BC Consults a Doctor/Researcher
To see how easy it might be to follow our
own advice, BC looked around for a real medical
doctor to ask about the “down low,” one involved in public health
issues as they relate to the black community. Dr.
David Malebranche, an MPH and assistant professor of medicine
at Atlanta’s Emory University, has been speaking, writing and
conducting research on public health issues and HIV-AIDS for some
“It’s a racist slander,” Dr. Malebranche told
BC when we asked him what he thought of the proliferation
of media stories about the DL. At the 2004 International AIDS
Conference he had this to say about the Oprah show and the DL
“Demonizing Black male sexuality has
been a staple of American culture since slavery, where our role
was to work and breed, and the Mandingo stereotype of a hyper-sexual
Black man with an insatiable appetite for white women was created.
That history haunted my thoughts as I watched Oprah Winfrey’s
recent show about ‘down low’ Black men, or guys
who live a ‘heterosexual lifestyle’ (whatever that
means) but have sex with other men on the side.
“The show misquoted
HIV statistics, offered sensationalistic generalizations, and
portrayed down low men as hedonistic predators who carelessly
have unprotected sex with men and women. It did all of this
in an effort to convince Oprah’s faithful audience that the
current HIV epidemic among Black women is mainly due to the
down-low, or ‘DL,’ brothers….
of this is just as much of a fantasy as the Mandingo stereotype.
The majority of public health research doesn’t support the
theory that DL men are a “bridge” for HIV to the general Black
community. There are no substantive studies on down-low Black
men. That’s in large part because researchers can’t find actual
DL men – few of them would be willing to participate in a study
discussing the sexual behavior they are supposedly so invested
Still, the hype goes on. J. L. King and others
who counsel scapegoating, suspicion, misdirection and the bulk
purchase of their books continue to be celebrated in the media
and prosper on the lecture circuit. BC asked
Dr. Malebranche why TV and the media publicize lurid and bogus
allegations while stories based the findings of real researchers
and treatment professionals are so rare. His answer was illuminating.
“Because those findings don’t demonize black
men,” answered the good doctor.
We add to that trenchant observation this
selection from Emory University’s Emory
Report, summarizing a recent study published by Dr. Malebranche
and co-author Greg Millet of the Centers for Disease Control:
“When you look
at the whole issue of what down-low means, it really translates
into the issue of disclosure – who you’re telling and who you’re
not telling – and may be dependent upon the nature of the relationship
and gender of the individual with whom you’re having sex,” Malebranche
said. “If some black MSM (men who have sex with men) are secretively
bisexual, studies have demonstrated that they’re more likely
to have more female partners than disclosing black MSM, and
thus are more likely to have unprotected sex with these female
partners. However, these same men report lower rates of unprotected
sex with their male sexual partners than disclosing MSM.”
These facts lead the study team to ask,
“If bisexual black men represent a small proportion of
black men in the United States, and nondisclosing black men
are less likely to be HIV positive than gay-identified men or
engage in high-risk behavior, then is this population primarily
responsible for the HIV epidemic among heterosexual black women?”
recent statistics, approximately 40 percent of the cumulative
AIDS cases among black women through 2003 are attributable to
intravenous drug use, with another 40 percent attributable to
risky sexual behavior. However, it’s not known what proportion
of these cases are infected through having sex with heterosexual,
bisexual or homosexual men.
”The flawed logic often perpetuated by the
media is that only homosexual men have HIV, bisexual men only
contract HIV through homosexual behavior, and the only way black
women contract HIV is through sexual contact with these bisexual
men,” Malebranche said. “Homosexuals are not the only ones with
HIV, and just because someone keeps their same-sex behavior
secretive doesn’t necessarily mean that they are irresponsible
with condom use.”
The authors argue
that the issue of high-risk sexual behavior among heterosexuals
has been absent from the discussion involving men on the down-low
and the high prevalence of HIV among black women. For instance,
they found that rates of condom use by black heterosexuals are
low, even among couples, where one partner is HIV positive and
the other is HIV negative.
“Secretive sexual behavior
has been around since the dawn of time,” said Dr. Malebranche
to BC. “Why is it that now we need a new name
for this behavior, aside from our need to blame and demonize
black men, and distract our attention from what’s really going
on? … Aside from…injected drug use, most of it [AIDS] comes
from one place – unprotected sex. And most of the sex
that most of us are having and continue to have with partners
of the same or either sex continues to be unprotected. It’s
foolish, and in the context of an epidemic it’s dangerous to
imagine that so-called ‘down low brothers’ have a corner on
the market for risky behavior or unprotected sex. They don’t.
We all have a hand in this.”
BC thinks Dr. Malebranche
is onto something here. The myth of the downlow fails to accurately
explain where the virus comes from or equip us to protect ourselves
and each other. It is both a racist and a homophobic slander.
Oprah’s producers must have known that however false and
misleading it might be, their “down low” show would attract viewers
and be remembered by them, just like that low-down hustler J.L.
King knew it would sell books. The market has an endless appetite
for shocking tales of unique black depravity. We need look no
further than last week’s reports broadcast around the world of
sniper fire halting the helicopter evacuation of hospital patients
in New Orleans, which the FAA now confirms never
BC suspects we may be seeing
a new kind of defamatory offensive against African America, in
which some of the worst pathologies of white America are projected
by its corporate media upon us. One such canard currently in
wide circulation holds that the African American community in
general, and especially the black church, are, unlike their white
counterparts, bastions of virulent homophobia.
Certainly there is no doubt that black homophobia
exists, and that many backward pastors drink and dispense from
this poisoned well. It’s also true that gay male musical directors
in black churches are prevalent often enough to be a kind of cliché.
Nobody at BC has spent much time in white Baptist
churches, but we doubt they see much of that, or that gay band
leaders and drum majors are a cliché in white colleges either.
BC Consults an HIV-AIDS Treatment
As Executive Director of the South
Carolina’s HIV-AIDS Council, Dr. Bambi Gaddist has been
on the front lines of HIV-AIDS treatment and advocacy a long time.
She has a PhD in Public health. In our conversation with her about
the “down low,” homophobia, the black church and the
AIDS epidemic Dr. G addist recounted that for years there have
been several standard questions she has asked every person who
comes through her agency’s doors for service, and which
she has also asked many hundreds of people for whom she has done
workshops and presentations. Among those questions are:
Uniformly, Dr. Gaddist
reports, those questioned say they were under 20, used no protection
and doubt anyone could have said anything to prevent the encounter.
“African Americans concerned about the HIV-AIDS
epidemic are not well served when we allow lurid conversations
about the ‘down low’ to take up all the oxygen in the room… There
are vast disconnects between what we as peers and parents tell
each other, between what many of our churches are telling young
people, and what we are actually doing, and yet another disconnect
between that and what we must do to get a handle on this epidemic,”
says Dr. Gaddist. “HIV-AIDS is not a ‘gay disease’, and ‘down
low bruthas’ are not lurking everywhere, but the virus could be
anywhere… It’s the spirit of shame, fear, and judgment that continues
to perpetuate the spread of the virus throughout our community
Dr. Gaddist added that the South is now ground
zero for the black HIV-AIDS epidemic, its 36% of the US population
accounting for 40% of the nation’s AIDS prevalence (existing cases)
and 46% of AIDS incidence (new cases) in 2003. If HIV-AIDS
was a gay male disease, she points out, why is it on the decline
in the western and northeastern US, but on the rise in the south,
including the rural South? The answer is that HIV-AIDS is
increasingly a black disease, and the southern states is where
half of us still are.
Dr. Gaddist believes that, notable exceptions
aside, there is plenty of hope and love for all God’s children,
regardless of sexual orientation, within the African American
church. Its leaders, she says, have a vital role to play
in bringing a halt to the epidemic. “Bishops, pastors, and
those entrusted with the authority to guide their flocks are now,
more than ever, being called to unconditional love for ‘the least
of these’. The South Carolina HIV-AIDS Council exists to
help them answer that call.”
Where America Refuses to Look For
HIV: The Prison Industry
An obvious, overlooked and under-researched
vector of HIV-AIDS into black women and black communities is the
planet’s largest prison industry, right here in the United
States. The US leads the world in the numbers and the percentage
of its citizens behind bars. Black America, representing just
one-eighth of the nation’s population, contributes about
half of the prison industry’s human raw material. Despite
mountains of anecdotal evidence, little research to date has been
done on the incidence and prevalence of HIV-AIDS in America’s
prisons and jails, and the relationship between the epidemic on
either side of the walls.
Time is Now: The State of AIDS in Black America”, is
a compelling, authoritative and easy to read document issued by
the Black AIDS Foundation in February 2005 which we highly recommend
to any and everyone. It addresses the prison-HIV connection first
by pointing out that the grossly disproportionate rate of black
incarceration exists alongside the soaring rate of HIV-AIDS infection:
“It is reasonable to assume Black
inmates account for a similarly disproportionate share of the
HIV infections. But further, more than three times as many African
American inmates died of AIDS-related causes in 2002 than did
whites. Politically and culturally the African American community
desperately needs to demand more of the public health systems
governing state and federal prisons.
“Rarely do we see as gaping of a disconnect
between public policy and the reality it is intended to govern
as that between the rules organizing our nation’s prisons
and the rapid spread of HIV and Hepatitis C within them. The
party line among prison officials is that HIV infection rates
are high in their facilities because they are high in the populations
from which prisoners are disproportionately drawn – young
Black and Latino men and women. But what if it’s the other
way around? What if HIV’s disproportionate impact on urban
Black and Latino communities can be traced at least in part
to the high incarceration rates in those same neighborhoods
– and the unsafe sex, drug use and tattooing that takes
place inside prisons?
“[E]ven if we simply
accept the fact that a large number of those entering prison do
so with an HIV infection, the potential epidemic inside –
and eventually outside – is awesome, for few environments
would better facilitate the virus’s spread.
“Prison officials are famously reluctant
to allow researchers to study the frequency of risk behavior
in their facilities, and they do few epidemiological studies
of their own… But given the testimony of current and ex-offenders
about the realities of inmate behavior, and given the high prevalence
of both HIV and hep C, we can only assume the worst.”
“[T]he tools proven
to be most effective at stopping HIV’s spread, condoms,
clean needles, fresh tattoo ink, are banned in most correctional
facilities. Few systems provide adequate HIV education and still
fewer offer substantive services to aid those living with HIV
when transitioning back into their home communities upon release.
Given the astronomically high incarceration rates, we cannot afford
to ignore the prison epidemic. “
But that’s exactly what we do when we
concentrate on myths and distractions like the hunt for those
ubiquitous and invisible “DL bruthas.” Just as much
of black America’s leadership is content to ignore the fact
of our nation’s disastrous public policy of mass incarceration
of black youth, we have so far turned a blind eye to the growing
the threat to public health posed by the epidemic in America’s
prisons, where again, we are the majority. Prison industry officials,
for their part, are doubtless fat and happy to be so ignored.
Many states and large counties, have privatized inmate health
services too, creating an additional large disincentive to prevention,
testing or aggressively treating HIV and hep C positive prisoners.
BC believes that South Carolina is one of only
two states that tests inmates on entry for HIV, offering them
counseling and in some cases sending them to separate facilities.
The Good News
TV shows like Oprah’s try to end on
a positive note --- a ray of light, a success story, a glimmer
of hope. BC didn’t have to look far for
Last month in Illinois, where African Americans
make up 15% of the state’s population, are 51% of the diagnosed
AIDS cases, and 65% of the prison census, activists successfully
enacted groundbreaking legislation that enables Chicago State
University to conduct the nation’s first comprehensive
study of the connection between the HIV-AIDS epidemics in
prison and in the state’s African American communities.
We talked to Chicago’s Lloyd Kelly of the Let’s Talk,
Let’s Test Foundation, one of the principal advocates behind
Let’s Test’ stands for let’s talk about HIV,
and let’s go get tested,” Kelly told us. “We
have talked about this for a while, and now we are going to test
it, too. People have pointed for years to a possible link between
prisons and the HIV epidemic. The CSU study will give us some
hard, useful data and go some of the distance to prove or disprove
between the HIV crisis out here, and the one behind the walls.”
The Illinois legislation does not provide
for mandatory testing of prisoners. “That would be a bad
idea,” said Kelly. “Inmates have rights too….
Who are we to tell people they have to be tested, given the consequences
of coming up positive?”
Brother Kelly’s point, and we think
he is right, is that potential employers, landlords and other
parties have been known to acquire people’s medical records
through various means and discriminate against people who are
HIV-positive. Ex-offenders have enough to deal with already without
compulsory HIV testing. Just as placing exclusive blame on bisexual
black men for the HIV epidemic is unproductive, scapegoating prisoners
is wrong too.
Among the provisions of Illinois House Bill
2578, according to an August
19 Chicago Tribune article:
- HIV-positive inmates who are released must
receive transitional case management and referrals to support
services through the Department of Corrections and other agencies.
- HIV-positive welfare recipients may request
changes in their work, education or training program if they meet
Americans With Disabilities Act standards for disability.
- High-traffic state offices, such as driver's
license facilities and public aid offices, located in high-risk
communities must provide space to community groups to offer rapid
Community groups, Kelly told BC,
will be able to walk up to people in line getting drivers licenses
or applying for unemployment benefits, and administer an HIV test
with results in 20 minutes. Additionally, there is to be a permanent
panel including two ex-offender reps who will review implementation
of the act. A provision for the distribution of condoms was struck
from the law late in the process to ensure its passage. Called
the HIV-AIDS Response Act, it awaits funding in the next session
of the Illinois legislature.
There is no doubt that the Oprah show which
featured low down J.L. King and helped legitimize his ghetto-centric
and homophobic boogeyman theories about the spread of HIV set
back the cause of addressing the epidemic which is ravaging black
America. The DL boogeyman does not begin to explain the facts
of the HIV epidemic, in which substantial proportions of infections
occur daily from injected drug use, from sexual contact with an
injected drug user or someone else who has been with such a user.
It doesn’t take into account the prison factor, and it allows
us to forget that many heterosexual men as well as women have
multiple undisclosed partners and are unprotected with many, most,
or all of them.
Besides allowing us to ignore or evade responsibility
for our individual and collective sexual behavior, discussion
and media hype over the DL hype diverts attention from commonsensical
public policy measures like those recommended by the Black AIDS
Institute’s “The Time is Now,” which call calls
for engaging HIV “not only as an individual health concern,
but also as a political and social struggle.”
Those recommendations, on pages 7 and 8 of
the report are
- 2. Fight to lower the cost of HIV-AIDS and
all other drugs affordable without bankrupting existing or future
public health insurance plans.
- 3. Fight for the Future of Medicaid: The
Bush Administration intends to end Medicaid as we know it.
- 4. Support for Needle Exchange Programs:
End the federal and state bans against these programs which have
been proven to save lives.
- 5. Reject Scapegoating in the Black Community:
Instead of looking for someone to blame, we need to change individual
and collective behavior and public policies to prevent new infection
and prolong the healthy lives of those already infected.
- 6. Restore Comprehensive Sex Education: “Abstinence-only”
education is ineffectual at best, and federally funded “abstinence-only”
often contain outright disinformation.
- 7. Institute Sensible HIV Prevention Measures
in Prisons: Offer free voluntary HIV testing to current and former
inmates, real assistance with transition, clean needles and condom
The “DL brutha” is a boogeyman,
and boogeymen are for children. When we become adults, we cast
aside childish things. It’s time to send the DL boogeyman
back to wherever he came from. Oprah helped unleash that boogeyman.
Will she help bury him?
Bruce Dixon can be contacted at [email protected]
 Transcript of the Oprah Winfrey show, “A Secret
Sex World: Living on the ‘Down Low’”, Executive Producer Ellen
Rakieten, April 16, 2004, page 2. Downloaded transcripts from
the Oprah Winfrey show are only $6.