Cheating's in the air. Your husband is seeing somebody else -- you know it. You and your girls go out on a late-night suspicion mission and follow him to a bar, where you see him with some guys, hanging out, drinking, laughing. You start to wonder if you were mistaken, but then your husband and the next guy start hugging each other in all the wrong ways. What? Your churchgoing, fraternity-member husband, the father of your children, with another man? How could you not have known?
This is the story told by J.L. King, author of On the Down Low, a primer for women about the lives of "down-low brothers," black men who have relationships with women but also like to have sex with men. They're not gay, King asserts, and they eschew the bisexual title. "The act of the sex is homosexuality, but...the media and people look at gay people as being less than a man" in the black community, King has said. "The greatest taboo is to be black and homosexual, and I refuse to be labeled and classified so that folks will look at me as something different. I am a man."
King's career as an HIV professional led him to tell his story. He travels the country as a motivational speaker, conducting workshops on AIDS prevention as well as how to spot a down-low brother. He wrote the book because he felt black women's lives were endangered. "I did not start on this journey to write a book. My purpose was to talk about this behavior," he says. "God said to me, 'Tell your message.' So I'm using my life for other brothers to say, 'It may not be easy, and you may get hurt and your reputation may be tainted and you may be talked about, but if you just give women a choice, so you won't play God, you'll be okay.'"
This undercover behavior is nothing new, and it's not going anywhere anytime soon. But it puts black Americans, who are 11 times more likely than white Americans to get AIDS, at greater risk. Even though blacks make up 12 percent of the population, they account for 39 percent of AIDS cases and 54 percent of new HIV infections. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that 64 percent of all women who get new HIV infections are African-American.
Despite these grim statistics, many African-American churches and social groups are reluctant to implement HIV education and prevention programs. "On one side of the fence, you have some churches who are joining the fight and realizing their clout and their position to be a social agency for change...and who preach acceptance and allow gay members to be part of the church," says King. "On the other hand, you have groups like Alphas, Kappas, Omegas, 100 Black Men and Prince Hall Masons, who refuse to allow me to speak to them, who refuse to accept the fact that they have members on the DL, who are even gay."
King is writing another book about the down-low life. Like his first book, it's sure to bring the haters out. "Oprah Winfrey put [On the Down Low] out in front of millions of people, and the next day her Web site was flooded with e-mails with people saying, 'How dare you air our dirty laundry?'" King says. "As long as that division is there, how can we win the battle?"