Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Self-Loathing on the Downlow

I just saw a short 2007 documentary called On the Downlow on LOGO. It is not to be confused with a 2004 film of the same title (about two male gang members in love) nor a TV series that looked into the same subject. NOTE: I've illustrated this post with a photo of author J. L. King, who wrote a book on the DL, being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. King had nothing to do with this documentary to my knowledge, and I haven't read his tome as yet, although I have seen some revealing quotes from it.

I thought at first that the documentary wasn't doing much to illuminate the "downlow" lifestyle -- if that's what you want to call it -- but later on I realized that in its low-key (downlow?) way it did illustrate the attitudes that lead many men (of all races) to live on the downlow.

Producer/director Abigail Child interviewed four African-American men from Cleveland, Ohio. Most of them identified as bisexual, but of course they all just came off as gay men, some more stereotypical than others. I was surprised that these particular individuals were chosen to talk about the DL, because I'd always thought that guys on the downlow persisted in their insistence that they were "straight." None of these guys said they were straight. However, since the DL is supposed to be a "secret" lifestyle, I can imagine that guys who are actually on the DL would never participate in a film like this. Still, you did obtain some insights, unsurprising as they may have been.

It's no secret that men on the downlow -- as well as many "straight" and "bisexual" men -- do not want to be labeled gay. Some African-American men on the downlow claim that white culture is more accepting of gays than black culture. (Of course, the whole point of Gay Lib and Gay Pride is for you to accept yourself no matter how others in your particular community feel about you). Most of the men on the downlow seem to have extremely stereotypical notions about gay men. "I don't present myself as a soft guy," says one man, "as a real gay guy." Another man says that he has to deal with enough discrimination as a black man, why would he want to come out as a gay man -- pardon me -- bisexual. (Although there are many, many openly and happily gay African-American men.) A third man claims that he prefers to sleep with women because they're "cleaner than gay men" and less likely to give him AIDS. Apparently he's completely unaware that AIDS is not a "gay disease" and that heteros get it all the time.

In other words, men on the downlow are mostly homosexual men who can't deal with their internalized homophobia. The term "downlow" may be new -- but the situation certainly isn't (there are plenty of homosexuals with wives and girlfriends) -- and it certainly isn't limited to the African-American community. They can't see other men as anything other than sex objects because the thought of living an openly gay life with another man is anathema to them, not because they're basically straight or even necessarily bisexual.

Two of the four men seemed to have girlfriends -- the documentary bounces around a lot and can be confusing. One man says that for him to be with a woman she has to be, more or less, drop dead gorgeous (implying that male lovers don't necessarily have to be "tens," which pretty much indicates that he's much more attracted to men than to women -- there have been gay men who are only "attracted" (somewhat) to uncommonly beautiful women, although the women they wind up with may not be so magnificent. This guy was a 7 or 8 while his actual girlfriend or gal pal or desperately-hoping-he's-basically-hetero lady friend was about a 2 or 3. But this seems to happen a lot when gay men have wives or girlfriends.)

Filmmaker Child offers no commentary or point of view; she just lets the men -- and some of their friends and relatives -- talk. On one hand this device works well enough to help us understand them, but as a couple of them seem somewhat inarticulate and not that intelligent (and none are exactly advocates for gay life), you have to read between the lines. Some narration or opposing points of view -- maybe some comments from Out and Proud Black Men who think the "downlow" is bullshit, of which there are quite a few -- might have provided more balance and given the film more perspective -- and sent a more positive message to those who are not in the know.

But there are positive signs in the film which indicate that these four men are not typical DLers. One man comes out to his military father with some trepidation. "I mean I am his only son," he keeps saying, which becomes irritating -- he's only telling him he's attracted to men, not that he's going to throw himself out of a window. He comes out as "bisexual," but as sometimes happens, the father doesn't react much differently than if he said he was gay, and his reaction is essentially positive, if guarded. "I love you." [However, it should be noted that many people tell they're parents they're bi -- whether they really are or not -- to soften the blow, giving parents the hope that they'll opt for hetero marriage and babies and the whole conventional nine yards. No it's not "pc" to say this and I don't give a shit.]

On an even higher note, the film ends with one of the four men talking about his boyfriend, describing how he's the first person he was ever in love with and how he wants to stay with him forever and grow old together "We're gonna be rockin' on that porch," he says.

Now this guy -- no matter where he was before -- is not on the "downlow" any longer. He's gay, and you find yourself hoping that he and his lover do wind up on that porch many, many happy, proud years from now. He's quite a contrast to the pathetic "macho" guy who thinks gay men are all "unclean," has knocked up his girlfriend, and will probably be confused, conflicted, and self-hating for his entire life.

Child could not have given her film a more perfect ending.

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