“Down low” or “DL” generally refers to Black men who consider themselves heterosexual but who also have sex with men without telling their female partners.
However, like many slang terms, DL means different things to different people. Some DL men identify as straight and have wives or girlfriends, but also secretly have sex with other men. Others are younger men who are still questioning or exploring their sexuality.
Some are closeted gay or bisexual men—men who identify as gay or bisexual but who are not open about it. These men may exclusively have sex with other men, or with both men and women, but because of stigma towards gay people they stay closeted. And then there are African American brothers who openly have relationships with other men but reject the labels “gay” or “bisexual” because they are culturally uncomfortable with these terms due to tensions that exist between white gays and lesbians and Black gays and lesbians.
How common is DL behavior? How many DL men are there?
We do not know. There is no data to support the size of the DL phenomenon which makes it hard to gauge the risk.
In surveys of men who have sex with men, between 15 percent and 30 percent of Black men identify as bisexual. About 14 percent of Black men who have sex with men in one survey reported that their main sexual partner was female. Studies of men who have sex with both men and women found high levels of unprotected sex among men of all racial/ethnic groups. However, this research looks at bisexual behavior—not necessarily DL behavior—and does not help determine how common DL behavior might be.
When the behaviors of closeted Black gay or bisexual men are compared to white gay men, the Black men’s behavior is slightly safer than the white men’s behavior.
Why don’t DL men just say they’re gay?
Many DL men don’t consider themselves gay. The term carries implications beyond sexual behavior. It is often used in a political, cultural and social sense (the “gay” community, “gay” rights, “gay” culture, etc.). Many Black men don’t identify with or socialize in these settings. Social stigma, discrimination, prejudice, mockery, violence—there are numerous factors that may make men who have sex with other men—whether they also have sex with women or not—remain secretive about their true sexuality. In addition, there have been occasions where Black “gay” men have been the victims of violence because of their sexuality. Perceived or real, Black people often cite the historical lack of acceptance by institutions such as churches and mosques, civil rights organizations and community leaders as reasons to live on the DL.
Homophobia cuts across racial lines. One study that examined anti-gay attitudes found nearly identical rates of stigma among Blacks and whites. However, because of the additional burden of race bias, Black men may experience homophobia more severely than their white counterparts.
Fortunately, Black leaders are now increasingly speaking out about how discrimination against people who engage in same-sex behavior is bad for everyone’s health and well-being.
Are DL men infecting Black women with HIV?
The impact of HIV upon Black women is one of our community’s greatest tragedies, but we don’t know how much that has to do with men on the DL.
Black women are primarily infected with HIV through unprotected sex with a man, and to a lesser degree through injection drug use. Many of these men may have been infected by sexual contact with another man or through injecting drug use. Some may have been infected while incarcerated or infected by women. They may not even know they are HIV-positive and may be unknowingly placing their sex partners—male and female—at risk of infection. Nationwide, it is estimated that as many as one-quarter of all people with HIV do not know they are infected.
How can men and women protect themselves from HIV infection?
Sexually active people who are not in a monogamous relationship, or who are not absolutely sure their partners are faithful, need to use condoms every time they have sex. They should also ask and answer questions about sexual history and desire honestly and openly. These questions are more likely to be answered truthfully when phrased in an open-minded, non-judgmental way. If you’re unable to or feel unsafe talking to your partner about sexual history, you may want to reconsider being intimate with him or her altogether. Both men and women should set their own sexual boundaries and limitations prior to becoming involved with another person. Finally, it’s also very important to be tested for HIV and other STDs on a regular basis.