Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Same-Sex Marriage and the Down Low

The success on November 4th of ballot initiatives preventing same-sex marriage in California, Arizona, and Florida has left most gay people feeling angry, and some are directing their anger at black voters, 60% to 70% of whom voted to keep marriage only between heterosexuals. Gay people say it’s a civil rights issue and why don’t blacks, who have been through so much discrimination, help gays fight the discrimination directed at them?
Many blacks voted against same-sex marriage because their pastors, as well as the Mormon Church, encouraged them to. This encouragement was often couched in terms of the need to “save” marriage. Gays often respond that their marriages didn’t threaten heterosexual marriage, so there is no need to “save” marriage from legal same-sex marriage. This, I think, is to miss a major concern of the black community about the health of marriage in that community: Same-sex marriage between black men could make the shortage of eligible bachelors in the black community even more severe than it is now. Whether this concern is well founded is open to question, but, by many measures, the pool of marriageable black men in the US is smaller proportionally than the pool of marriageable white men. American white racism, although it also oppresses black women, comes down particularly hard on black males and makes it harder for them to be the strong providers often envisioned for traditional heterosexual marriage. For example, compared with the general population, they have less education. Only 52 percent of public high school students in the fifty largest US cities (where many blacks live) graduate after four years; the national average is 70 percent. (http://www.inteldaily.com/?c=144&a=5861). Black men are more likely to be unemployed than the general population. For example, unemployment in August, 2008, was higher among blacks (10.6%) than in the country overall (6.1%), and unemployment among black men was 11.2%. (http://www.epi.org/content.cfm/webfeatures_econindicators_jobspict_20080905 and http://www.epi.org/content.cfm/webfeatures_econindicators_jobspict_20080905b)
And black men are more likely to be in prison (4,789 per 100,000 residents) than white men (736 per 100,000). (http://drugwarfacts.org/cms/?q=node/64).
But there is another concern in the black community that makes the discussion of same-sex marriage even more difficult. It is life on “the down low.” “The down low” refers to black men who have sex with men, and it is a term often used by black men who are sexually active with men, but who don’t consider themselves gay. I first learned about the down low from an article in the August 3, 2003 “New York Times” magazine by Benoit Denizet-Lewis called “Double Lives On The Down Low.” (http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?sec=health&res=9F0CE0D61E3FF930A3575BC0A9659C8B63&scp=1&sq=Double%20Lives%20On%20The%20Down%20Low.%94&st=cse)
The article’s title tells the story. As Denizet-Lewis writes: “Rejecting a gay culture they perceive as white and effeminate, many black men have settled on a new identity, with its own vocabulary and customs and its own name: Down Low. There have always been men -- black and white -- who have had secret sexual lives with men. But the creation of an organized, underground subculture largely made up of black men who otherwise live straight lives is a phenomenon of the last decade.”
Further on, he continues: “...the black church -- like many in white America -- is careful not to condone homosexual behavior. 'Some gays want a flat-out, standing-on-the-tower affirmation from the church that the gay lifestyle, or the lifestyle of whoring around with men, is acceptable,' says Kelvin Berry, the director of the (Cleveland Antioch Baptist Church AIDS) program. ''And that's not going to happen.'” And in fact, the black churches are fighting the legalization of same-sex marriage, because they see the down low as dishonest and dangerous to black women and the black community.
And who can disagree? So, gays like me who support same-sex marriage need to step back and understand better the concerns of the black community on this issue. We need to understand that same-sex marriage can seem to pose a threat to traditional marriage in the black community and in society at large, because of many men’s duplicitous behavior. Living a lie – in the closet, on the down low – is not a good life, however sexy and attractive. Coming out of the closet, out of the down low, is the better course however difficult.

1 comment:

Franklyn said...

While the Black churches may be concerned about women, the root causes of their homophobia lie rather in the structure of the black family.It is widely believed that the lack of stable men in Black families cause a variety of psycho-social problems. I believe one of these problems is a poor masculine self concept among many young Black men which is compensated for by a hyper masculinity. All sorts of problems stem from this, including anything that might suggest to them that they are effeminate. Since most black clergy are male and are equally effected the result is homophobia. A study to determine if black males from stable male led families exhibit equal homophobia would be interesting.