Friday, March 9, 2007

A Down-Low Shame

So I was reading Slate, and found this article about the popular mythology surrounding the "Down Low." If you're unfamiliar, here's the 30-second primer: The remarkable spread of HIV/AIDS in the Black community in the United States is due to a number of men who, while married, are actually engaging in homosexual sex on the side. "Keeping it On the Down Low," normally invoked to indicate that something is being kept a secret, is used here as a way of saying "in the closet." As it turns out, the Down Low doesn't explain the phenomenon. The fact that the Down Low is overblown is nothing new. Slate itself commented on that very fact in this article two and a half years ago. But this time, a different writer is bringing it up again, mainly to explain why, if it's been pretty much debunked, the concept is still with us.

The answers, according to the article, are thus: White people, Conservatives and Liberals alike, find that it helps justify their racist assumptions about Black people. It's been picked up by Blacks out of a sense of equal-opportunity conspiritoriality - why should White people be the only ones keeping secrets that are dangerous to Blacks? The myth has also gained credibility among Blacks out of a sense of self-loathing - the community's failure to capitalize on the strides made during the Civil Rights Movement is because of immoral behavior in the interim.

My opinion - malarky.

For me, the most enduring legacy of America's history of racism is the expectation of racism. In other words, endemic historical racism breeds the perception of endemic modern racism. But to a degree, racism is like airplane disasters - made to seem more prevalent than the reality due to the frequency with which we talk about it. I will admit that the Down Low theory of the spread of HIV in Black society can be viewed in such a way that makes Black society look bad. But the idea that the purpose of the Down Low theory is to tar the Black community is a bit much.

So why then, does it still persist?

The Down Low theory, as an overarching explanation for the spread of HIV in the Black community, can really be explained this way:

Question: Where does HIV/AIDS come from?
Answer: Man on man sex - duh!
Question: So how did that married lady over there contract the disease?
Answer: Well, her husband must have slept with another guy at some time.
I know a number of people, Black and not, who are more or less convinced that gay or bisexual men are pretty much the only realistic vector for introducing HIV into any given population. This leads them to believe that married couples should be safe from the disease.

Hence, the idea of the "Down Low" becomes a convenient (and more importantly, plausible) way for everyone to explain something that "Conventional Wisdom" says shouldn't be the case - the spread of HIV through a community widely understood to be overwhelmingly heterosexual. (Some people would go so far as to say violently homophobic.)

This ignores some simple facts:
  • That HIV is not an EXCLUSIVELY sexually transmitted disease.
  • That one's chances of contracting the infection from any single heterosexual encounter with an infected partner are low, but NOT ZERO.
  • For most people, their current spouse, and their first sexual partner are NOT the same person.
  • While recommended, an HIV test is not a requirement for marriage.
  • For some number of people, the fact that they're sleeping with someone else doesn't mean that they aren't sleeping with their spouse.

Those simple facts mean that it's entirely possible that one could need all of one's mythical "six degrees of separation" to get from any given infected person to any given infected homosexual person, and lead to these simple facts:
  • Just because two people are married now doesn't mean that one or both of them were HIV-negative when they were married, even if neither of them ever had homosexual sex.
  • Just because two people are married and HIV-negative now doesn't mean that there is NO vector for one or both partners to contract the disease, even if neither of them ever has homosexual sex.
While this doesn't preclude either of the old bugaboos of White racism or Black self-loathing, I would say that these are more likely to be reinforced by the Down Low mythology, as opposed to its genesis.

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