Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Low Down on the Down Low, Southern Style

"I've never had so much gay sex with straight men in my life as I did in Charleston!" His words had my head spinning in complete and utter disbelief. As my blonde friend spoke, his brunette friend vigorously nodded his head in agreement.

At first I thought maybe these two guys were talking about another Charleston, they must have been mistaken. But no, they meant Charleston, first to fire a shot in that war of northern aggression, the site of our nations first rebellion, first to secede, South Carolina, USA.

It was a beautiful glorious day in San Francisco around 1985, the sun was shining, it was warm, and if you've been to San Francisco in the spring you know warmth, spring and northern California are not on speaking terms on even a good summer day. I was giving a ride back across the Bay to a couple of theater colleagues, two gorgeous and very funny young white men who'd just moved back to the Bay Area after two years living and working in Charleston at the Spoleto Festival.

We were having a fabulous time singing along with Sylvester at the top of our lungs, windows rolled down catching the wind as we rolled across the Bay Bridge, the sun seemingly following us on it's way toward Hawaii and no traffic in sight.

Sure there are gay men in the South. I knew that but he explicitly said "straight men." (Even black folks from the big city of New York have stories about music directors, and choir directors in Black churches that everyone just turned a blind eye to and pretended ignorance. "Oh, meet Mr. Black, he's Mr. Gray's roommate.") So no, I didn't know any gay men in the South back then but, certainly there must have been many. It was just that most, no, all of the gay men I knew from the South had left; they'd fled screaming on the first thing smoking out of the South to environs more friendly. And it seemed that all of them had moved to the Castro District in San Francisco in the mid 80s!

"Can you believe it, we had to move back to San Francisco to get a rest." Huh, say what?

"These married men would get up in the morning, put on their suit and tie, kiss little Johnny and Suzy goodbye, buss the wife on the cheek, grab their briefcase, hop in the car, and stop at my house on the way to work for a little topping off before heading to the office. It was fun and exciting at first, but I just couldn't juggle them all anymore. It was just exhausting"

By now I was flabbergasted. All the gay men I knew were, well, openly gay. This was my first glimpse into a subculture of folks who are not just undercover, or in the closet even, but men who are actively passing because they have compartmentalized that part of themselves that likes sex with men. They were gay, I kept insisting. Then they must be bi-sexual? Right?

Very patiently, like trying to explain "blue" to a blind person, they kept saying, "No, not gay, straight, they just like a little diversity." So I had questions, how could this be? Mind you, this was pre-E. Lynn Harris, pre-down low as something that everyone is familiar with, whether you're white or black, Asian, Latino, old, young, gay or straight, the down low has now become a part of our lexicon. But it was 1985 and I was being schooled.

After the about fifteen-hundredth time I'd said, "But I don't understand, how this can be going on in the South?" Their response was, "Honey, let me tell you about living in the South. You can do anything in the South that people do in other more "liberal" (fingers as quotation marks) parts of the country. People do drugs, sell drugs, there are bootleggers to get around the laws in "dry counties," (fingers as more quotation marks), people screw their best friend's wives, or husbands, sisters or brothers, fathers rape their daughters, people steal, lie, cheat. You can do anything, just don't put it anyone's face! It's the veneer that's important, not the substance but the surface."

So there you have it! The low down on the down low. It's a southern thing. Well no, not really. But you get my point, the down low is about preserving the surface, the veneer of things, no matter how ugly it may be, how much "stuff" is roiling and boiling underneath, as long as things are civil and serene on the surface, as long we observe proper decorum and demonstrate good manners, it's all good. And that is very Southern.

There's something else that has stayed with me about the ride that day across the Bay Bridge. Within four years of 1985 I lost 22 friends and colleagues to AIDS, 85% of them within a two year period. Sylvester's voice was also stilled. The sheer loss of talent and creativity is incalculable. I don't know but certainly have ample reason to suspect that the two beautiful young men I'd given a ride that day, may also not have survived what felt like a tsunami of death. There were no drug cocktails back then, no one-a- day regimens, getting the result of your tests took two weeks, and though people were dying to get into drug trials, (pun intended) at that point AIDS was a virtual death sentence. So the chances that they made it out of that period alive are not great.

It makes me wonder though, what ever happened to the wives of the husbands in Charleston who needed a little "topping off" on the way to work?


  1. Mom, you know me, I've always said, those dudes that participate in that lifestyle are gay. I've heard all kinds of explanations and this and that, but, real straight men don't have sex with other men. Doesn't matter if you are giving or receiving. If you knowingly, willingly and consciously participate in sexual activity with a member of your sex: you're gay.

    I don't care what the environment is, what the culture is, you are what you are.

    By the way, I should've offered you a book called Mama Black Widow when you were here the other day looking for something to read.

    Mama Black Widow is by Iceberg Slim and was published in 1969. For twenty years I refused to read that book because it depicted graphic sex scenes between two men and rape.

    At 39 years of age I figured, hell, if I'm gonna write about this guy I might as well, read all of his books.

    It's definitely one of his best works.

    He talks about homo thugs and the down low and all that, and the story is set in the 40's, 50's and 60's.

    What makes it a great book, is that it is the tragic story of a Black family from the south who lose themselves in the Big Windy City of Chicago during the Great Migration.

  2. Wellllll, I'm less inclined to categorize. My friend Ed said a long time ago, "I'm not homosexual. I'm not heterosexual. I'm not bi-sexual. I'm sexual." It made so much sense to me that I describe myself that way. I'm not interested in equipment. I'm interested in people. Sex is--or at least can be--a way of knowing another person even more intimately and an expression of love and joy for the beloved's existence. It can also be a response to mysterious messages produced (perhaps in the amygdala, perhaps not) somewhere in the soup pot of the human brain. It isn't simple. Knowing or identifying as gay or something else is so terribly complicated by the sexually repressive history of the past 250 years or so it's impossible to be able to make any kind of categorical statement. It takes many generations to dig out poisonous roots and know they've all been extracted.

  3. Hmmm...well...I'm not sure if it's the PC thing to say or the polite thing to say... But, hell when have I ever jumped on the whole PC and always be polite band wagon to start with... I've waited my whole life to be this grown so here goes....
    If one wishes to look at if from an anatomical perspective; it can be surmised that given the make up of the male and the female that one was made for the other. Two pieces of one half to make one pun intended. Additionally, given the fact that these two pieces of said half seem to truly be "made for" each other and that great pleasure can be found when said pieces are joined, that these two pieces "fit" kinda like that puzzle that you are trying to start. You search the entire box for one piece to fit into another, placing them end to end, side by side...You get the picture, and none of them "fit" per se. Then you pick up that piece that slides right into the piece your holding and wham, bam, thank you've got a match. Sex is supposed to be a "fit"...A perfect fit if you will and I'm sorry, but, the gay sex is not now, nor has it ever been a true "perfect fit".
    I have no problem with folks getting down how they get long as you're grown and not out there committing felonius acts of molestation or rape, do your thang... I do however take great umbrage with the men on the flipping down low! You are no less gay than the man in an openly gay relationship or the woman in an openly lesbian relationship. Gay has a definition because it requires one. Sex in itself has SEVERAL different defintions because of the various and a sundry ways it can be performed. If Gay sex were just regular, old, every day sex....Why is it considered different? Why is work called work and not something else to describe what getting up every day at the crack of dawn, going to your employer, performing a skill and assigned duties for a paycheck not defined as something else other than work?'s called a number of things too...labor, earning wages, indentured servitude, slave labor, procuring funds to pay ones monthly indebtedness...All equal up to and are defined by the word: work.
    Again my issue is not with the word or the act thereof...It's so called straight men that sleep with gay men who may or may not use protection and go back home and sleep with their wives and girlfriends and infect them with all manners of STD's to include HIV...and pretend like they didn't KNOW that they're asses was having sex with a man that could potentially be infected!! Are ya flipping kidding me!!

  4. There is a difference between affectional orientation versus sexual orientation. Gay is a black and white definition that our society has developed to say you either are or you aren't. If you sleep with X you are gay. Gay is also a subcultutre very much so defined by race, geography, and other demographic characterisitcs. When we say gay we think about those theatre folks from Keryl's blog. It is my personal opinion that the DL subculture is a response from both men who live in a compartmentalized manner (truly closeted homos) and men who don't neatly fit into the gay subculture (ethnic minorities and those with homo or bisexual orientations and heteroafectional orientations). Not everyone wants to be in a relationship with a man or get married to them. They just want t fuck them.
    Many scholars agree that gay has become a subculture defined by westerners. In response the acronym MSM (male seeking male or men who have sex with men) evolved. I could go on and on about the subject but instead I will just post somethings that might educate a lil...

  5. I am not justifying the behavior. I am just saying that it is a little more complex.