Ask most people to define someone who is on the down low, and they are most likely to say that the term describes a Black man who's dating a woman but is secretly having sex with other men. However, activist-writer Keith Boykin says that the definition is certainly more complex than that.
In Beyond the Down Low: Sex and Denial in Black America, Boykin examines the social and cultural forces behind the 'down low' phenomenon. Among the specifics analyzed are media-generated misconceptions; African-American women and HIV; and even the history of being secretive and unfaithful. In addition—in a move that is sure to generate buzz—Boykin criticizes J. L. King and his work, On the Down Low: A Journey into the Lives of 'Straight' Men Who Sleep with Men. Among other things, Boykin says that King spreads misinformation by using incorrect statistics and feeding into stereotypes of Black men.
Boykin recently spent a few moments with Windy City Times. He talked about everything from public policy issues to the joy of iTunes.
Windy City Times: Keith, I found this book hard to put down. No matter how you feel about the subject, it seems like everyone should find this book intriguing.
Keith Boykin: Thank you. It's actually funny to hear that because my first book was so serious. This book shows who I am and how I've changed. I had just graduated from law school when I wrote the first book and I tried to write some intellectual legal tome. When I wrote this book, I just had a message that I wanted to communicate as thoroughly as possible and do it in a personal and interesting way.
WCT: This book challenges the actual meaning of being on the down low.
KB: When I first heard about the down low years ago, I didn't know what it meant. I heard people use the term in entirely different ways. Some used it when talking about Black men who had relationships with women and who had sex with men. However, I knew other people who were clearly gay—and had no relationships with women—who also said they were on the down low, too. So there was a lot of confusion regarding what the term meant.
I explore the different definitions of being on the down low in the first chapters of the book. Do we have a common definition? I come to the conclusion that there is no single definition of the term; the media has created its own definition and that's the one I try to focus on.
WCT: It's pretty interesting where you have the exercise where you ask the reader to look at several different personal profiles and determine who's on the down low.
KB: Yes, because none of those people could be on the down low, depending on your definition. None of them meets the classic definition, which is an HIV-positive Black male who has sex with men while having relationships with women.
WCT: You know, I really hadn't heard that being HIV-positive was part of the classic definition.
KB: Well, nobody specifically defines it that way—what the mainstream media does is assume that [ being HIV-positive ] is part of the case. Media stories say that men on the down low are spreading AIDS to Black women: 'Be careful of men on the down low because they might infect you.' The reason that they don't define it that way is because there is no evidence to prove that men on the down low are any more likely to be HIV-positive than anyone else. However, they clearly assume that that's the case because all these articles—and even the dedication of J. L. King's book—state that Black men on the down low are responsible for the AIDS epidemic.
WCT: A sentence in your book basically states that if white men on the down low didn't cause a new outbreak of AIDS in the white community, then maybe it's the same in the Black community.
KB: Yes, and that's a semi-rhetorical statement because we don't really know the answer to either one. However, no one really investigates white male sexuality in terms of the down low because it hasn't been pathologized that way.
WCT: I like the fact that you discuss the history of the down low. While the term may be new, the act certainly isn't.
KB: Oh no, no, no. That's what so amazing to me. How did this story come up out of nowhere? Everyone knows that homosexuality and bisexuality have been around since the beginning of time—and everybody knows that a lot of gay and bisexual men don't identify themselves that way. So what's the big news flash?
That's something that's weird to me. When J. L. King's book came out, he was basically creating a news flash, saying 'You have to worry about this.' I suspect that there'll be new books out repeating that. What makes my book different is that it doesn't assume that being on the down low is new—and it says that what we've been told isn't necessarily true. It's a difficult task to calm people down after they've already been alarmed.
WCT: The chapter on songs that deal with cheating ( and being on the down low ) is also pretty interesting. For example, there's the classic 'Me and Mrs. Jones.'
KB: [ Sings the song's title. ] Yeah, I hadn't even thought about that until I started writing the book. That chapter was the most fun to write.
WCT: I can believe it.
KB: I think I enjoyed it too much. I went crazy with iTunes. I went on the Internet downloading tunes and listening to the lyrics. I thoroughly enjoyed the music and what it said to me. Hopefully, I conveyed that to the reader.
What amused and surprised me is that there are a fair number of songs that deal with homosexuality and bisexuality. There's Peggy Scott-Adams's 'Bill,' for example. When that song came out [ in 1997 ] , there was a big controversy over it.
WCT: Moving on to the media and its fascination with the down low, you mention four factors that possibly contributed to the topic becoming such a story in 2001.
KB: Yes. The 20th anniversary of the AIDS epidemic is an obvious one. The HIV statistics about Black gay men is another possible factor; that got people talking about the epidemic, even as they focused on Black gay and bisexual men.
There's also something called 'AIDS fatigue,' in which people get tired of covering the same story over and over. The third element [ news items that incorporated Black women ] was a way of talking about something else. The problem is that it never really dealt with Black gay men.
Lastly, I think the reason this became a story—more than any other factor—is J. L. King. It's amazing how one person can push a story into popular consciousness, but it's more amazing when that person's account doesn't reflect any current clinical or scientific data.
WCT: When you decided the title of your book, was that your way of saying that your work goes deeper than ( or 'beyond' ) King's book?
KB: No. It was about simply going beyond that topic, not necessarily going beyond J. L. King.
WCT: What do you think is the most egregious thing that King has done? You mention several mistakes that you feel he's made, such as focusing on material things and quoting incorrect statistics.
KB: I'm not actually criticizing him for wanting to make money. It's hard to say that one thing is more important than another. What disturbed me about the [ monetary ] aspect is that I did not get the impression that anything else was motivating him besides money. I found that completely inconsistent with his current message about wanting to save Black women; I never got that impression during any of my conversations with him.
WCT: It seems if the media accepts information that neatly fits certain stereotypes, it can be that much harder for other people to get the truth out.
KB: I agree. For example, I think Oprah Winfrey should do another show. [ She aired one about the down low that featured King. ] This show could simply feature Black gay and bisexual men. If being Black and gay is so difficult, why not show people who are? Why not show E. Lynn Harris or Lee Daniels ( the producer of Monster's Ball ) ? Why not have Black gay couples? Why not have people who break down those stereotypes about Black male sexuality? It would be a nice alternative to 'J. L. King says this and Keith Boykin says that.'
WCT: Not only do you point out problems but you offer personal recommendations ( like getting tested ) and public policy solutions ( such as universally administered HIV tests and free condom distribution in prisons ) .
KB: Let's discuss personal solutions first. It's easy for people to get lost in the big picture and not realize what they can do to make a difference. The personal solutions I chose are reasonable steps a person can take to change their own lives and the lives of those around them. I encourage people to think globally and act locally, as the saying goes. I also felt it was important for people to know they have power. The AIDS epidemic is entirely preventable; it just requires a certain level of personal responsibility. I think that, with the down low phenomenon, Black women have been encouraged to not accept responsibility because the burden has been shifted to Black gay and bisexual men. However, everyone should take action and the responsibility to protect himself or herself.
In terms of the public policy dynamic, I'm a public policy person; I've been in politics all my life. I wanted some specific solutions and I used them in the context of that vice-presidential debate between Dick Cheney and John Edwards when Gwen Ifill asked them about Black women and AIDS. Neither one of them had a good answer and I came up with a list of things they could've said.
WCT: When you conducted your research, what was the most surprising thing you discovered?
KB: It had to be that Black women do not make up the majority of new AIDS cases. Actually, it didn't surprise me intuitively but I had seen it so many times in the media and in King's book. I researched it on the Internet, conducted a NEXIS search, and talked to people in the CDC [ Centers for Disease Control ] . It was amazing because everyone had said the opposite of what I was reading in black and white.
Another thing that surprised me—but not on the same level—is that there was no recent story of Black women being infected by a man on the down low in 2001, when the down low story first emerged. After all the media hype, there was no CDC research and no clinical data that would back up that statement. The media went into a frenzy over one anecdotal statement—and no one bothered to see if it was true.
WCT: So you left no stone unturned?
KB: Well, I won't say that. I wrote this book in a very short period of time—three months. The good thing is that I was able to respond to things quickly. However, it's hard to be a thorough as you want to be in such a short span of time—but I went as deeply as I could without overwhelming people with information.
WCT: How did E. Lynn Harris come to write your foreword?
KB: I've known E. Lynn Harris for a long time and when he heard that my book was coming out, he said he'd do whatever he could to help me.
WCT: How do you think different sectors, such as the media and the Black community, are going to react?
KB: I guess I'll find out. [ Laughs. ] The reaction I've gotten so far has been positive; hopefully, that's a harbinger of things to come. I've been invited to Tavis Smiley's State of the Union panel next month, Jesse Jackson has invited me to the Rainbow PUSH Coalition Convention this summer, and Anderson Cooper has invited me to be on his show in February. So the reaction has been good.
One of the things I like about the team behind me is that it's so diverse. My agent is a straight Black woman, my editor is a gay white man, and I'm a gay Black man. We have a nice cross-section of people who are getting these ideas out. I didn't know how my agent would react to the book—but she really got it. She understood that I'm not trying to blame anyone; I'm trying to stop us from blaming people.
This interview also appears in the February Identity, now available. Identity also includes columnist Max Smith's review of the book.