The Disappearing B, Literally: The Issue with Language

8 May

Reflection: Identity, Media, Cultural Capital, Language and Its Constant Change

            I decided to look more into the emergence of the Down-Low and the debates surrounding the term. I thought it would go along very nicely with our debate over the disappearing B.  I feel like the main debate over this term, like many other terms, has to do with language. On the positive side, I liked the fact that the Down-Low identity was presented by some researchers as a way for individuals to express their identity and be understood quickly. For example, as Jake showed us online, the implications of saying “Down-Low” on your profile, how would that draw/push away viewers, would this make it easier for individuals to communicate with others with this identity? In addition to this, my research showed how the term was very common during the 1990s, which leads me to compare the use of language/terms and its interpretation at different times in our history; 1990s vs. today. How does the creation of this term in the 90s affect our interpretation/portrayal of it today? Despite the lack of focused research specifically analyzing the impact of the Down Low and the HIV epidemic, I do see the correlation between them. However, I believe the media has blown it out of proportion to negatively affect men who have sex with men.

On more negative sides, I see how the term Down-Low has become associated with crime and urban pathology, affecting a specific group in society negatively. As Gonzalez explained, “The Down-Low debate has the necessary ingredients to sell: Concealed non-normative sexualities, a subaltern genre of explosive culture (hip hop), a pandemic caused by a sexually transmitted agents, innocent victims (heterosexual women) and a population often accused of misbehavior (men of color). Based on my research, I observed that Latino and African American males and the Down-Low were used excessively to explain the increase in HIV cases in these communities. These individuals are portrayed as the SOLE reason for this increase: leaving out social issues of poverty and lack of government prevention services that have also been key to the spread of HIV as well.

Finally, the main issue I had during all of my research was the constant interchange of terms used for identification. For example, the Down-Low was associated with MSMW, yet, in my research, the term MSM was used to explain concerns with HIV. Bisexuality was used so often when analyzing individuals who identified as heterosexual and had sex secretly; identity v. action, is this okay? When critiques emerged of the absence of the term bisexuality in academia because of the Down-Low, MSM, and MSMW, I understood the point because bisexuality was used to define all the terms but never used to see how bisexuality solely affected HIV rates for example. I even found a different bisexual definition, coined “Latin Bisexuality,” should there be a difference? So much term confusion pushed me to question the issue with language we encounter and how imposing a term without concrete definition can lead to the creation/misinterpretation of identities not just by researchers, but also by the popular media. What do you all think? My brain hurts.  Here’s a brief summary of my findings!

Where did it come from, the Down-Low?

           Social repercussions due to sexual orientation has led many Latino and African American gay and bisexual men to identify as heterosexual while secretly engaging in sex with men (Brooks). The notion of keeping a “low profile” characterized Latino and Black bisexuals in United States. Bisexually identified men of various ethnicities are less connected to a gay community and less comfortable with their sexuality, have fewer family and friends who know about their sexual behavior (Brooks).  Based on my research,it seems that the label of the Down-Low emerged in African American and Latino urban communities approximately ten years ago. The connection between youth of color was consistent with linguistic assessment that placed it emerging in the early 1990s, and delineated the sexual identity and behavior of a population at a specific historical moment (Gonzalez, 27).  Although the first journalistic reports about the Down-Low included Latinos, they quickly faded from discussion and focus shifted to African Americans. The lack of participation by Latino communities and HIV awareness groups are heavily accounted for the absence of the Down-Low in relation to Latinos. (Gonzalez)

The Increase in Media Involvement

            Published articles described the Down-Low as young men unfazed by the tension between their non-normative sexualities and their otherwise conventional Black & Latino working-class male identities. The core of their secrecy was their refusal to politicize their intimacy that is, to adapt a public gay identity (Gonzalez, 26).  To many, men who said they were “on the Down-low” had sex with other men without self-identifying as gay, homosexual, or bisexual, and strived to maintain a low profile of their sexual activities or attraction to same gender patterns (Munoz, 773). On April 16, 2004, the Oprah Winfrey Show aired, A Secret World of Sex: Living on the Down Low. The show featured a married African American man who had sexual encounters with other men secretly (Dodge, 1). Few could have known the impact a single episode would have on the sexual culture in the U.S. Essence magazine expressed DL as a common interpretation of bisexuality. Jet magazine argued that their refusal to identify as “gay” prevents these men from heeding prevention methods to the gay community.  Health experts explained it was a learned lifestyle in prison, which continued after being released. In 2002, Paul Baker’s Fantabulosa: a Dictionary of Polar and Gay Slang published in London, “defines DL, as initials of Down-Low and an adjective in African American slang referring to Black men who appear heterosexual in public, but have gay sex”  (Gonzalez, 27). A concrete definition of the Down-Low was never created.

The Down-Low versus Bisexuality versus MSM versus MSMW

            To some, labels such as “men on the down low” or “DL” and the negative attention that these labels have received in the press reflect our general lack of understanding of sexualities that operate outside the traditional accepted binary between heterosexual and homosexual (Munoz, 773).  The term men who have sex with men, MSM, came into existence as an acknowledgement of the fact that there are men who engage in sexual activity with other men who still identify as heterosexual. This term, MSM, has led to absence of any recognition of bisexuality in academia, with a focus on behavior rather than sexual orientation (Dodge, 6) It is impossible for bisexual men to “not exist” and simultaneously be the driving force of disease transmission between hetero and homo.

HIV Statistics in Relation to These Identities

            Despite making up 13% of the United States population, Black women disproportionately make up 72% of all women with HIV/AIDs. The highest HIV positive group among Black men is Black MSM making up 30 – 50% of all Black male cases. In terms of HIV risks, Black MSMW are 30 times higher at risk to get HIV and 13 times higher for Black MSM.  Evidence of the Down-Low phenomenon in the HIV epidemic among African American rates is lacking while Black male bisexuality in association with HIV transmission hasn’t adequately described these behaviors and associated risks. Bisexual Black and Latino men are at significantly higher risk for HIV infection and transmission in comparison to both exclusively heterosexual and homosexual/MSM men. (Dodge)

Posted by Maria L”

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2 Responses to “The Disappearing B, Literally: The Issue with Language”

  1. Maria L. May 8, 2011 at 7:35 pm #

    Sorry it’s so long! Let me know what you all think!

  2. RyanPatrick May 12, 2011 at 10:22 pm #

    Love this post! You are so spot on. You discovered the same issues I had as I researched and assembled my Living Queer Primer… So many unique bodies, sexualities, minds, and emotions – sometimes the words get in the way.

    I will be posting an awesome resource on bi-invisibility and the conflation of risks involved with MSM and MSMW – a resource that has actual studies and data to back up and refute claims.

    I like the idea that you bring up about terms being perhaps out of date and the current popular being usage out of touch with the truth of the matter – i.e. the spread of STI’s via people on the DL. I think this may be linked to the continuing social stigma connected with sodomy. Linking community outrage and anger to spread of disease allows many to render their homo/biphobia invisible.

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