Time to face up to `down-low'

Blacks must fight this deadly delusion

December 01, 2004|By Marjorie Valbrun

BLACK WOMEN are talking about it in book clubs and at hair salons, warning each other in chat rooms and mass e-mails, lamenting it at social gatherings and in support groups. At parties, they whisper and wonder who among the men present might be "on the down-low." They search Web sites reserved for men who want to date "straight-looking, straight-acting" men in hopes that they won't find pictures of their husbands or boyfriends.

Is it any wonder that when the annual U.N. report on the global AIDS epidemic was released last week -- in time for World AIDS Day today -- showing sky-high AIDS infection rates among black women in the United States, few informed black women around the country were surprised? The report found that AIDS rates are rising among all women around the globe, and that women make up nearly 50 percent of the 37.2 million infected adults worldwide. And 72 percent of all recent HIV cases among women in the United States are among black women.

In Washington and Baltimore, the infection rates are even higher than the national average. A stunning 94 percent of all women with HIV in Washington are black. In Baltimore, black women make up 83 percent of cases among all women with HIV. The statistics are cited so often that many black women know them by heart, and their blood boils every time the numbers are repeated.

The HIV-infected women are not mostly prostitutes or intravenous drug users with high-risk lifestyles. Many are ordinary black women: secretaries and lawyers, teachers and social workers, artists and actresses, sales clerks and brokers, college students and police officers -- women of varied socioeconomic backgrounds who married or dated black men who secretly have sex with other men, according to researchers, media accounts and AIDS groups.

The U.N. report says the main reason for the increased rate of infection among American women "is the often undisclosed risky behavior of their male partners."

In Maryland, the AIDS rate among black women through intravenous drug use has dropped while infection through heterosexual contact has increased. In 2001, for example, 41.2 percent of black women with HIV were categorized as intravenous drug users while 57.5 were classified as infected through heterosexual contact. By 2003, the trend had shifted dramatically, with 29.7 of the cases attributed to IV drug use and 69.7 percent to heterosexual contact, according to the state health department. D.C. reports similar trends.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that of black women who were diagnosed with HIV from 1999 to 2002 in 29 states, nearly 82 percent were infected through heterosexual contact.

It's not surprising that the women are being infected at disproportionately high rates in the Baltimore and Washington areas. Both cities have majority-black populations, and the Washington area has large black gay and bisexual male populations.

AIDS is among the top three causes of death for black American women 35 to 44 years old, according to UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS. It's the leading cause of death for black American women 25 to 34 years old.

While those numbers have raised the ire of black women, the lack of sustained public outcry from the black community is surprising and frustrating. For months, black women have stewed furiously as they watched these men on the "down-low" parade themselves on Oprah Winfrey's show and unapologetically blame women for falling for them.

They say black women are so desperate for partners that they overlook the signs that something is amiss with their men, as if these men had red flags waving over their heads. The men apparently reason that their extracurricular, same-sex activities are not the business of their wives or girlfriends. They insist they are simply men who occasionally enjoy the company of other men.

More infuriating, they delude themselves and their female mates in a dangerous attempt to prove their authenticity as "real men" to relatives and friends who make up a black community that is still largely intolerant of homosexuality in general and gay males in particular.

The less shy among the men have written best sellers detailing their sexual deceitfulness, bragged about it to newspaper reporters and lied their way through one relationship after another with unsuspecting women. Some, like those who appeared on Oprah, have done so using their real names, but most have done so anonymously.

Consequently, debate about the "down-low" lifestyle is making its way into the mainstream. Yet some in the black community would prefer it stay in the shadows, where it has thrived, for fear that it will become yet another negative mark on the image of all black men and turn the perception of AIDS from a "gay disease" to a "black disease." Those concerns are valid, but are outweighed by black women being sentenced to death by lying men.

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