Sex, lies and the "down low"

Bestselling author J.L. King is the new public face of a not-so-new phenomenon -- "straight" black men who secretly sleep with men. Is he a savior to black women worried about HIV -- or a self-promoter fanning fears of a bisexual black bogeyman?

Published August 16, 2004 7:27PM (EDT)

On July 24, Chicago-based author, businessman, speaker and HIV/AIDS activist J.L. King joined other prominent African-American writers in New York for the weekend-long Harlem Book Fair. He'd been invited to sign copies of his controversial new book, "On the Down Low: A Journey into the Lives of 'Straight' Black Men who Sleep with Men," and to participate in a panel about fidelity in black relationships. The fair was a success -- King's book sold well, and the panel went smoothly -- until Saturday evening, when he attracted some unwanted attention.

"We're walking and taking in everything," King's manager, Marshall Douglas, told me over breakfast at King's Park Avenue hotel the next morning, "and this guy walks up and says to J.L., 'You're a homo!' And he stopped the people around him -- 'That guy right there is a homo! He's the one who wrote the book! Yo, why are you doing this to us? My wife is asking me if I'm doing that D.L. bullshit!'"

Confrontations like this aren't new to King, and he knew what to do: keep walking; don't look nervous. "If I'd stood there and argued with him, other brothers would've come around," said King, 49, who claims to have received death threats because of his work, and now requires his hosts to provide security for his speaking engagements. "Brothers are upset about my book -- I was scared. Very scared."

King might not be overreacting. Thanks to his bestselling book, King has become the public face of a controversy surrounding sexuality and HIV/AIDS in the black community: black men who live "on the down low," or the D.L., leading seemingly straight lives but having sex with men.

Ten years ago, when hip-hop girl group TLC and R&B Casanova R. Kelly suggested in their hit songs that if you're going to cheat, it's best to keep it "on the down low" -- a secret -- men of color adopted the term to describe behavior that had been a part of the black community (and every other culture -- hello, Jim McGreevey) for years, but is still considered taboo. "Men have always secretly been having sex with other men and not telling people about it," says NYU American studies and English professor Phillip Brian Harper, author of "Are We Not Men? Masculine Anxiety and the Problem of African-American Identity." "But now, a fairly elaborate culture has emerged and become relatively known, so the D.L. looks like this new thing -- when what's new is nothing more than the trappings around it." And the media attention: in the past two years, D.L. stories have appeared in newspapers, magazines -- even on an episode of "Law and Order."

"On the Down Low" became a sensation when King, who lived a double life for 20 years while publicly identifying as straight, appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in April for a show about black women and HIV/AIDS. The books were still in distributors' warehouses when Oprah hosted King, but thanks to viewer demand for the book, publisher Broadway Books released it a few weeks early. For its first printing, 13,000 copies were shipped; it is now in its 12th printing and has shipped 151,000 copies.

"I knew the book would do well," said the bestselling novelist E. Lynn Harris, who is gay and has written about black relationships, gay and straight, for over a decade. "Black women are trying to do whatever they can to arm themselves in the fight against AIDS."

"Black women are showing up at my book signings and my presentations, taking over 99 percent of the audience," says King, a tall, strikingly handsome man with an obvious swagger. "They're listening, learning, asking questions, buying six, seven, eight books at a time. Nobody has approached black women at the beauty salons, or wherever they go to talk about this, and now that I'm doing it, and I'm not gay -- I don't look gay, talk gay or act gay -- women are paying attention."

King might not look gay, talk gay or act gay -- but he does have sex with men. And that contradiction gets to the heart of what is so vexing about the down low. D.L. men don't want a relationship with another man, King writes in "On the Down Low," don't consider themselves gay or bi (those are "white" labels) and blame the homophobia of the black community for keeping them in the closet. "In the black community, you cannot be gay and black -- you have to choose," says King. "If you choose to be gay, then you're going to go over there where the white boys are, and be in the white gay culture. You can't be black and gay on the south side of Chicago. You can't be black and gay in Harlem. If you are, then you're looked at like, there's some sissy who's got issues. We've never been taught to accept our sexuality -- we hide it, because we're afraid of the fallout that comes from our churches, our family, our friends and our associations."

It could be this unwillingness to address their sexual behavior, and the semantic gymnastics D.L. men employ to cloak their sexual preferences, that are endangering black women. Health officials say there is definitely a connection -- although they're not sure how strong -- between D.L. behavior and the rise of HIV/AIDS infections in black women. The numbers are arresting: According to a November 2003 report from the CDC, from 1999-2002 African-Americans made up the majority (55 percent) of new cases of HIV: 72 percent of all diagnoses in women and 49 percent in men. The most common way for women to contract the virus -- 77 percent of cases -- is through sex with an infected man. (The CDC is now conducting studies that focus on D.L. men.)

King says he wrote the book to warn black women about the D.L., and the possibility that their partners could be sleeping with men on the sly -- and maybe even infecting them with HIV. But critics point out that his theory is based on unquantifiable information: No one knows how many men are on the D.L., or how many of those men are HIV positive. And no one knows how many black women who contracted the virus from heterosexual sex got it from HIV positive partners on the D.L.

Instead of focusing on who may or may not be on the D.L., says Chicago-based HIV activist and Baptist minister Rae Lewis Thornton -- who was infected with HIV from a man in 1986 -- we should be talking about African-Americans and sexuality. "King has made a lot of money and scared the hell out of a lot of black women," says Thornton. "But it makes all black men the bad guy. It's not that we can't trust black men -- that isn't what the discussion should be about. It's about, how do we address homosexuality in the black community?"

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"On the Down Low" is in part a self-help guide for black women with instructions on what "signs" to look for in their partner. (Pay attention to your intuition; be aware of his schedule and where he is at all times; watch out for overtly homophobic comments; change up your schedule once in a while and "drop in" on him at work.) But it is also a confessional memoir. King goes into great detail about the double life he led for years -- sleeping with a guy he met at the gas station on the way home from his girlfriend's house; picking up guys at churches and adult bookstores -- and about the countless betrayals, and the guilt he eventually felt for hurting the women who loved him.

When pushed, King identifies as bisexual, even though he'd rather "just identify as 'J.L.'" -- which seems contradictory, coming from someone who advocates clarity and honesty about sexual identity. (He has a girlfriend, he says, who knows that he has sex with men.) "When you tell people you're bisexual, the only thing they think is, 'you have sex with men?'" says King. "Right now in my community, two men having sex means gay," he says. "And that's not a correct assumption."

Before his seven-year marriage ended, King says he had it all: He and his wife, his high school sweetheart, were raising three children in Springfield, Ohio. They'd bought what King calls his "dream house." He had a well-paying job as a marketing executive.

They had it all, that is, until his wife followed him to the house of a fellow church member -- a friend who'd become King's lover -- one afternoon 15 years ago, and caught him in bed with the other man.

She immediately divorced him, but King stayed on the D.L. for years, dating women -- he was engaged four more times -- while continuing to secretly sleep with men.

"I bet you if I hadn't gotten caught I'd still be married today and living a double life," he says. (One of King's ads read: "Attractive black male seeking attractive black males on the serious low; if you're into women, contact me.") "Some women will go to their grave not knowing that their husband of 50 years is on the D.L. As long as he can get away with it, as long as he doesn't affect her, as long as he can keep his tracks covered."

Living two lives, says King, is "like having two fulltime jobs. You know how to take care of your home life: you have sex every Wednesday night and every Friday morning. You go to the Hamptons in the summer and church on Sunday. So as long as I stay on top of that, keep my wife satisfied, pay the bills, and come home every night, she won't even think about what I'm doing.

"But on the other side of the fence, when I put my other mask on, I'm constantly on the Internet trying to find guys," he says. "I'm talking to my D.L. friends to find out who's getting down right now and how can I make that hookup. I'm trying to make sure that the bill to my other credit card I have doesn't go to my home, but to my P.O. box. "

That's some serious compartmentalization. King says the secrecy of it, the taboo nature, was part of the excitement. "To have sex in the kitchen [with a man] while your wife and his girlfriend are in the living room watching TV -- that's exciting. Or in the garage working on the car, or shooting pool in the rec room, while the family is one room away."

Throughout the book, and in conversation, King declares his love for his ex-wife. But was he thinking about her at all during his hookups? I ask. "No," he admits. "She's over there doing her thing and she's happy and I'm happy with her. That's how we justify it: Stay out of my business -- this ain't got nothing to do with you."

But, I argue, as his wife and partner -- and as someone who assumes that he's not cheating on her with another man -- it does have to do with her and her health. "I don't know why I didn't think about her feelings or her future," King says. "I don't know why I was so selfish that I didn't think that what I was doing had an impact on her. As long as I could get away with it, I was OK with that. I really was. In hindsight when I think about that period in my life, I don't feel good about it."

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A week before my breakfast meeting with King and his manager, I heard King speak at a panel discussion about outreach and HIV/AIDS prevention for African-Americans in Washington. The audience -- around 50 people -- was mainly black and female. (After King's description of D.L. life, the women were apparently ready for honesty wherever they could find it: when the last speaker walked to the podium and announced, "I am a proud black gay man!" the crowd cheered.)

King's schedule is full of panels like these: hosted by not-for-profit HIV/AIDS organizations or college groups, King usually sketches his D.L. life for the audience and segues into a discussion of the AIDS crisis. For most of the four years he's been an HIV/AIDS speaker -- he was working the not-for-profit public health lecture circuit about AIDS and the D.L. when he was approached by a literary agent -- he's promoted and marketed himself, sending out brochures about his work and booking presentation dates. (His publisher is now supporting his national book tour). He won't say how much he earns through his speaking engagements, but his fee starts at $4,000. His audiences, like the one in D.C., are usually filled with women who gratefully tell him he's doing sacred work, women who are angered by his detailed account of cheating on his wife, women who feel threatened and scared by the thought of their man sleeping with another man. What King doesn't emphasize in his talks and his book is that not all black men are on the D.L., and that not all black men on the D.L. are HIV-positive.

Keith Boykin, an openly gay black man who served as a special assistant for media affairs in the Clinton White House and is a contestant on the Showtime reality show "American Candidate," thinks that King is profiting from creating a culture of fear among black women and perpetuating negative stereotypes about black men. "We've had this [AIDS] epidemic for 25 years now," Boykin said. "Black people have been dying for that entire time, and nobody has done anything about it. Suddenly now there's this D.L. story, but they don't want to talk about the issue [of sexual responsibility] -- they want to talk about whether your man is on the D.L.," he said. "I think it's tragic to have another series of stories that portrays black men as predators. Black women are looking for answers [about HIV], and they have no answers to latch onto -- and here comes a guy who says he has the answers."

King wouldn't directly address Boykin's claims, only saying that sure, women are scared -- and they should be. "You can't bring this subject matter to the forefront without causing fear," he says. "It's just natural and going to happen. I think this message has to create fear in order to change behavior."

During the question and answer session after the panel in Washington, a few women asked for advice about discussing sex with a partner. "How many women here have talked to their man about condoms, sexual health and HIV status?" King asked. Only three women raised their hands.

Talking with men about sex can be a challenge for black women, says Tricia Rose, American studies professor at the University of California-Santa Cruz and author of "Longing to Tell: Black Women Talk about Sexuality and Intimacy." Too often the attitude from men is "if you want to use condoms, you must be sleeping around," says Rose. "So it puts women in this classic patriarchal bind: If they protest then it looks like they're criticizing the guy. So a lot of women won't have sex -- or don't protect themselves."

Discovering that your supposedly straight partner has been cheating on you with a man is a shocking betrayal. If you contract HIV because of his infidelity, says Washington social worker and fellow panelist Diane Jones, who runs a support group for women infected or affected by D.L. men, it's devastating. "It's like, what was wrong with me as a woman that made you sleep with another man?" she said. "We take it personally. And this level of deceit is like nothing we've known before. We've dealt with men cheating with other women. I think we've become numb to that. But now I'm HIV positive, as a result of your behavior that you couldn't talk to me about? You made a conscious decision to cover your front using us. Now I'm taking 16 medications a day -- and I still have to take care of the children."

Jones says that she's seen many women start taking antidepressants -- or illegal drugs for those who can't afford health insurance -- to anesthetize themselves. "For the women in these situations, it's too much pain to even endure consciously," she says.

Stephanie Edgecombe, 53, a single mother of two and an employee of Academy for Educational Development, the not-for-profit organization that hosted the panel, says that hearing D.L. horror stories has her rethinking whether she's interested in a relationship. "When I first heard about the D.L., fear immediately set in," she said. "If I attempted to date again, this is what I have to face? Now you have to be an FBI agent? This is what is so frightening to me. Before, you had to worry about, Oh, is he a criminal. But now, this is always going to be lurking in the back of my mind when I meet someone new."

King says that for many men on the D.L., it's just too hard to be honest about their sexuality -- that the risk of ostracization from friends, family and the church is too real. If gay and/or bi black men "tell the truth," writes King, "they will be called a 'fag.' That's the worst word you can call a black man. It basically strips away your manhood. You're saying I'm soft, that I want to be a woman or that I act like a woman."

For now, many black women are paying for black men's fears about coming out. "It never ends for women -- we're always the ones left holding the bag," says social worker Jones. "And there's always some reason: 'Well, we couldn't tell you because the community is still stereotyping us.' Well, we're all victimized and oppressed in the black community -- who decided that black women are the ones at the bottom of the totem pole?"

Since many D.L. men -- and even many black men who are open about their desire for other men -- don't feel comfortable identifying as gay or bisexual, some have adopted the term "same gender loving," or SGL, as a way to distinguish their relationships from white gay culture. (In fact, King, who recently launched a small publishing company in Chicago devoted to books by and about people of color, is about to release a book about SGL relationships called "Staying Power: The Unofficial Guide to Maintaining Positive African American Male Relationships.") Novelist E. Lynn Harris says he's more comfortable with the term "SGL" than "gay" -- but he also thinks that if a label shows up too often in mainstream culture, African-Americans will eventually let it go. "If it's put out there by the press, then I think African-Americans will reject it and move on to something else," says Harris. "I just think the more society tries to label these young men, they more they're going to be harder to find."

This resistance to mainstream labels has prompted HIV/AIDS prevention organizations to tailor their outreach efforts to reach men who sleep with men but don't consider themselves gay. "I tend to talk more about behaviors," says Jay Blackwell, director of HIV education and training at the government's Office of Minority Health Resource Center. "Sometimes talking about behavior takes away some of the emotional power from some of the words. If I tell a man that his behaviors are getting him in trouble, he's more apt to listen to that than "That gay stuff you're doing is going to kill you." The HIV/AIDS arm of the CDC doesn't even use the word "homosexual" or "gay" in their studies and reports -- opting for "men who have sex with men" or "MSM"; both the CDC and the Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York are taking HIV testing to venues -- like community health fairs -- that aren't associated with gay culture.

The complex issues surrounding sexual identity in the African-American community aren't going away, says King. So he plans to continue promoting his message -- and, of course, himself. He's in the process of selling his second book -- a detailed look at the types of men who are likely to live on the D.L. "I want my second book to have the same impact this is having -- to continue to promote dialogue and provide education," he says. "I want people to say thank you, J.L., for forcing us to take a look at sexuality and sexual orientation. Hopefully when the [HIV/AIDS] numbers start decreasing, people will say it's because of this guy who stepped forward and put a face on this behavior -- that it's because of his vision that we're seeing a decrease."

By Whitney Joiner

Whitney Joiner is an editor at Seventeen magazine and a frequent contributor to Salon.

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