In same-sex sexual contexts, Down-low refers to men who have sex with men (MSM) but are either closeted or do not identify as gay. The term is most often associated with and has its origins in African American culture in the United States but it is not exclusive to that group.
This usage emerged during the 90s in inner-cities across the United States, and early in the 2000s when a series of mainstream media reports emerged, some equating the phenomenon with men who have sex with both men and women, and some tying the behaviour to the ongoing AIDS pandemic.
While closeted homosexuality occurs across cultures and in many societies, 'down low' is most often used to refer to African American men who engage in discrete homosexual sex.
The term is also used for secret heterosexual relations.
"Downlow" as closeted homosexuality evolved from an earlier use of the term which simply meant "secret"  (as in "keep it on the down-low"). It is used as a noun, adjective and adverb all pertaining to keeping information secret. Cassell's Dictionary of Slang even records "d.l.c." as a down-low conversation. It is used between two people, as in "let's keep this between the two of us." During the 90's it began to be used more frequently in relation to closeted homosexual sex.
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The first known person to use "down-low" in a homosexual context was George Hanna, who used the term in the 1930 song Boy in the Boat about lesbian women.
The first mainstream media account of the down-low as closeted homosexuality was reported in the Los Angeles Times on February 7, 2001. By the end of the year, numerous major media outlets had reported on the down-low. They included The New York Times (11 February), USA Today (15 March), Columbus Dispatch (19 March), St. Louis Post-Dispatch (1 April), New York Times (3 April), Chicago Sun-Times (22 April), Atlanta Journal-Constitution (3 June), San Francisco Chronicle (4 June), Village Voice (6 June), VIBE magazine (July), Jet magazine (8 September), Essence magazine (October), San Diego Union-Tribune (2 December), and Los Angeles Times (December 7). Nearly all these stories connected the down-low to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the African-American community, though research has failed to support that black men are more likely than others to be closeted or sexually transmitted disease conduits.
In the summer of 2003, two black gay cultural critics published controversial op-ed pieces that questioned the relationship between HIV/AIDS and men "on the down low". Village Voice contributing writer Jason King published "Remixing the Closet: The Down Low Way of Knowledge" in the newspaper's summer 2003 (June 2003) "Queer Issue"; and San Francisco Chronicle contributing writer Frank Leon Roberts published "Stereotypes and Sexual Orientation: The 'down-low' -- Coming out your own way in black clubs" in the newspapers' July 23 2003 issue. Both writers criticized negative mainstream media depictions of down-low men. They argued that the use of the term "down low" was a way for many African American men to admit to having sex with other men without necessarily identifying as "gay" in the traditional sense.
In August 2003, the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story called "Double Lives on the Down Low", written by Benoit Denizet-Lewis. On April 16, 2004 J.L. King, author of On the Down Low appeared on Oprah to discuss his life on the down-low, a month before the release of his tell-all book about the subject. The down-low was also part of story lines on episodes of the television shows Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and ER. Several episodes of The Oprah Winfrey Show were also dedicated to the subject including an 16 April 2004 "A Secret Sex World: Living on the 'Down Low'" show featuring J.L. King discussing his book On the Down Low: A Journey into the Lives of "Straight" Black Men Who Sleep with Men.
In 2003, Jeffrey Q. McCune, Jr. wrote a full-length play entitled, "Dancin the Down Low," He directed and produced this play at Northwestern University in April 2004. In addition, McCune has dedicated a whole dissertation on this topic. His study examines DL discourses closely, while also exploring how DL men "do" masculinity and sexuality.
Using a content analysis of more than 170 articles written between 2001 and 2006, sociologist Richard N. Pitt, Jr. concluded that the media pathologized black bisexual men’s behavior while either ignoring or sympathizing with white bisexual men’s similar actions. He argued that the "Down Low" black bisexual is often described negatively as a duplicitous heterosexual man whose behaviors threaten the black community. Alternately, the "Brokeback" white bisexual (when seen as bisexual at all) is often described in pitying language as a victimized homosexual man who is forced into the closet by the heterosexist society around him.
Context and American sub-cultures
The term became eroticized within Black and Latino homosexual communities, who began to equate closeted status with masculinity. Throughout the Black-Gay porn industry and internet networks, "down-low" quickly became a marketing term used to publicize pornographic movies, models, sex-clubs and social gatherings.
The prevalence of closeted homosexuality in various American demographics is debated. John Fiske has claimed that it may be more common in American communities suffering from widespread poverty, in which members reportedly depend heavily on traditional family networks (and often religious institutions) for financial and emotional support, such as African-American and Latino communities, in both of which homosexual behavior is strongly stigmatized.
In his book, Down for Life , author J. Perez advances that US society has created an environment that does not encourage men who are living on the down low to come out of the closet. He claims that the military penalizes men who acknowledge they are gay, encouraging them to marry women in order to deflect and discourage inquiries into their sexual behaviour.
Perceived connection to HIV/AIDS
A 2003 CDC study of 5,589 men who have sex with men found that black men who have sex with men who disclose their sexual orientation were more likely to be safe in some of their sexual practices and more likely to be HIV negative than black men who have sex with men who do not disclose their sexual orientation. This is likely due to peer support and access to an affirming community which can educate about HIV and safer sex practices.
Media critic and author of Beyond the Down Low: Sex, Lies and Denial in Black America, Keith Boykin denies this connection, attributing the media claim to sexism, racism, homophobia and classism. Boykin stated that despite the numerous media accounts linking the down-low to the occurrence of AIDS in the African-American community, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has never cited men on the down-low as a factor. and that no extensive research has ever been published about men on the down-low, in part because of the difficulty of identifying the targeted population. In his book, Beyond The Down Low: Sex, Lies and Denial in Black America, he writes that men on the 'down-low' are not the cause of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in black America. Boykin argues that the down-low debate demonizes black men, stigmatizes black women, and encourages an unhealthy "battle of the sexes" that distracts the community's attention from the issues of HIV prevention, personal responsibility and condom use.
Fictional and popular media references
- In the 2005 episode of House titled "Hunting" the titular character implies the character played by Omar Epps practices safe sex because he is involved in homosexual sex on the "down low".
- Several novels by black gay writer E. Lynn Harris, among them Invisible Life (1991), Just As I Am (1995), and And This Too Shall Pass (1997)
- Invisible, 2006 independent film directed by Bill Duke
- Kimberly Elise made a guest appearance on the UPN sitcom Girlfriends, in which she portrayed a woman infected with HIV by a boyfriend, who was on the down low.
- Law and Order: Special Victims Unit featured the phenomenon on the episode "Lowdown", episode 111 airing April 6 2004.
- In The Rundown, The Rock tells a character that he will "..keep it on the low-low…".
- The rap song "On The DL" by The Pharcyde from the album "Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde"
- In a rap song "Outta Control" by Mobb Deep and 50 Cent: "I go down low, I'm lyin I'm tryin my best to let you know"
- "Down Low (Nobody Has to Know)", a R&B song by R. Kelly released in 1996. Down low in the song describes a secret heterosexual relationship.
- An independent feature film entitled On The Downlow is released in 2004. Directed by Tadeo Garcia and written by Roger B. Domian the film follows the lives of two Latino gang members hiding a special secret within a Chicago gang. Released on DVD through Image Entertainment on January 9 2007.
- In mid 2007, on the NBC Soap Opera, Passions, Chad Harris is having a secret Rendezvous with Vincent Clarkson, another black man he met while visiting a gay bar in the fictional town, Harmony, whose clientele is multi-ethnic.
- Channel 21, Alt Nation, on Sirius Satellite Radio has a music news segment called The DL. Madison, a Sirius DJ, hosts the DL, which is aired at regular intervals during the day on channel 21 and has a runtime of approximately two minutes. Alt Nation's official page on the Sirius website describes The DL as "… [keeping] you-up-to-date on the latest news, rumors and gossip in the world of [alternative rock] music and entertainment." 
- NOFX's 2006 album Wolves in Wolves' Clothing features a song titled "Getting High on the Down Low".
- In the Season 8 episode of ER titled "A River in Egypt" Dr. John Carter treats a rapper that is involved in homosexual sex on the "down low" and finds out he has AIDS.
- The DL Chronicles is series of short films about African-American men who have sex with men. The series began in 2005, and there have now been four episodes. Originally made for television, they have been shown at gay film festivals and released on DVD in 2008.
- In the film I Think I Love My Wife, Chris Rock's wife accuses him of being on the downlow.
- Q&A: Men on the Down Low. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved on 2008-07-18.
- Wright, Michelle; Antje Schuhmann (2007, page 41-54, ISBN 3825896935). Blackness and Sexualities. LIT Verlag Berlin-Hamburg-Münster. Retrieved on 2008-03-19.
- Green, Jonathon (2006, page 893, ISBN 0304366366). Cassell's Dictionary of Slang. Sterling Publishing. Retrieved on 2008-03-19.
- Green, Jonathon (2006, page 414, ISBN 0304366366). Cassell's Dictionary of Slang. Sterling Publishing. Retrieved on 2008-03-19.
- Keith Boykin, Keith Boykin (2006, page 172, ISBN 0786717041). Beyond the Down Low: Sex, Lies, and Denial in Black America. Carroll & Graf Publishers. Retrieved on 2008-03-18.
- The Oprah Winfrey Show: A Secret Sex World: Living on the 'Down Low'. Harpo Inc. (16 April 2004). Retrieved on 2008-03-19.
- Pitt, Richard N., Jr. (2006) "Downlow Mountain? De/Stigmatizing Bisexuality Through Pitying And Pejorative Discourses In Media". Journal Of Men's Studies 14:254-8.
- Keith Boykin, Keith Boykin (2006, page 17, ISBN 0786717041). Beyond the Down Low: Sex, Lies, and Denial in Black America. Carroll & Graf Publishers. Retrieved on 2008-03-12.
- Fiske, John (1993, page 211, ISBN 0860916162). Power Plays, Power Works. Verso. Retrieved on 2008-03-12.
- Schneider, Beth E.; Nancy E. Stoller (1995, page 141, ISBN 1566392691). Women Resisting AIDS: Feminist Strategies of Empowerment. Temple University Press. Retrieved on 2008-03-12.
- Keith Boykin, Keith Boykin (2006, page 173, ISBN 0786717041). Beyond the Down Low: Sex, Lies, and Denial in Black America. Carroll & Graf Publishers. Retrieved on 2008-03-12.
- SIRIUS Satellite Radio - SIRIUS Satellite Radio - Listen To The Latest Alternative Rock Music
- Boykin, Keith (2005). Beyond The Down Low. Avalon. ISBN 0-7867-1434-4.
- King, J.L. (2004). On the Down Low. Broadway. ISBN 0-7679-1398-1.
- Jones, Jonathan W. (2005). Get By: A Survival Guide for Black Gay Youth. Booksurge. ISBN 1-4196-2333-8.
- Williams, Jeffrey Lee Jr. (2004). The Low-down on the Down Low.. The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide. , 11(6), 6.
- Hubbard, Thomas K. (2003). Homosexuality in Greece and Rome. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-23430-8.
- Roberts, Frank Leon (2003). The 'down-low' -- Coming out your own way in black clubs.. San Francisco Chronicle. , July 24 2003.
- Williams, Craig A. (1999). Roman Homosexuality : Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-512505-3.
- Perez, J (2007). Down for Life.. Vida Publishing. , January 03 2007.
- Marie, Joy (2008). The Straight-Up Truth About The Down-Low. Creative Books. ISBN TBA.
- New York Times article abstract (Backup copy)
- San Francisco Chronicle article
- 10 Things You Should Know About the Down Low
- The Black Closet
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