July 23, 2004

Homiesexuals and guys on the down low

Mark Liberman and Eric Bakovic have discovered the notion of "life on the down low". Here's a version of what I wrote to the American Dialect Society mailing list on 5/1/04 about "homiesexuals" and guys on the DL.

Warning: Some decidedly "adult" sexual content in what follows.

Act 1. I come across "homiesexual", a new word (for me) for a familiar concept (to me):

Noticed in the May 2004 issue of Out magazine, in a fluff piece about brush-off lines for use by gay men in various settings (Hippie Hollow Park, Austin, Texas: "Hell, no! You look like you been rode hard and put up wet." Amoeba Music store in Berkeley, California: "Dude, I'm really, really sorry..."):

Homiesexual bar in the West Village, New York City: "Is you playin'?"

Putting aside the representation of dialect and speech style, this was the first time the almost surely inevitable "homiesexual" 'gay Black' (homey/homie + homosexual) had come past my eyes (or ears). About 7190 hits on Google, though. A great many for Homiesexual, a gay club in Manchester (England England, not New Hampshire). Others for an assortment of Black gay websites, including one for James Earl Hardy, author of (among other things) B-Boy Blues (1994), "a seriously sexy, fiercely funny Black-on-Black love story", as the front cover says; the back cover tells us, in a burst of -in', that the protagonist had "always wished, hoped, and dreamed for a RUFFNECK -- a hip-hop-lovin', street-struttin', cool posin', crazy crotch-grabbin' brotha". Very sweet book, in fact.

End of Act 1. As the curtain opens on Act 2, another ADS-Ler introduces "on the down low":

On May 1, 2004, at 9:36 AM, Nathaniel Thomas wrote:

The term I've heard, mainly from a NY Times article [NYT Magazine, "Double Lives on the Down Low", by Benoit Denizet-Lewis, 8/3/03, with responses in the gay, Black, AIDS, and general media, not to mention an Oprah show], is "on the down low", meaning closeted gay black men who visit gay bath houses (I think). The article is not fresh in my mind, but the essential aspect is that this term does not refer to an openly gay, especially flamboyant, black man, rather one who continues to live in the hip-hop subculture, has a female significant other, and has sex with other men "on the down low".

To which I respond:

That's something else. Homiesexuals are quite clearly Black, gay, out, proud, and identified with ghetto/hip-hop culture. They're not flamboyant, in the sense of outrageous, ostentatiously effeminate, campy, etc.; they're home boys -- queer home boys, but still home boys, with all the displays of hypermasculinity that go along with the homey identity. Hardy starts chapter 3 of B-Boy Blues with a little lecture on this role from his protagonist, who has a jones for these guys:

...[Raheim's] a B-boy -- or banjee/banji/banjie boy, or block boy, or homeboy, or homie, or as MC Lyte tags 'em, "ruffneck." [pages of exposition follow, ending with...] They are the boyz who are the true hip-hopsters, the gangstas, the menaces 2 and of society, the troublemakers, the troubleseekers, the hoods, the hoodlums, the hood-rocks, the MacDaddys, the DaddyMacs, the rugged hard-rocks...

[I continue...] In contrast, guys who are (or live) on the down low, the down-low, or the DL, emphatically don't identify as gay or bisexual and don't necessarily identify as homies (many are middle-class). They're the Black contingent of a group that social services people have come to label MSM, Men who have Sex with Men. MSMs (yes, I know, an awkward plural) in general reject the label gay as an identity label for themselves (which is why the social services folks need another term, if they're going to deal with these guys) and usually reject the label gay for their sexual activity, which they describe as playing with, or hooking up with, other guys. They're not queer, they just like to get it on (or off) with other guys now and then. Like closeted gay men, they don't publicly disclose their interest in having sex with other men, because of strong social disapproval for these activities, but they'd never describe themselves as closeted, because the closet is a gay thing.

When MSMs are willing to talk about the motivations for and satisfactions of their sexual activities with men, they tend to stress the male-bonding aspects of the thing, the celebration, even sharing, of masculinity with their partners (sort of like sports, but with orgasms). In this they are very much like frankly gay men. However, the enormous weight that MSMs put on masculinity tends to make their sex extraordinarily dick-centered, even more so than for frankly gay men. Caressing, kissing, and cuddling are just not on the program for many MSMs, because they're "too queer", too tainted with femininity; for many frankly gay men, on the other hand, displays of affection play a central role in sex.

Living on the DL (described in those terms) is definitely a Black way of being, and most guys on the DL are looking for Black partners. It's a Black-on-Black thing. In part this is because these guys (in common with many African Americans) see "being gay" as a specifically white thing. and in part because in their sexual activities guys on the DL are celebrating not just their masculinity, but their specifically Black masculinity.

I've gone on at such length about these identity categories because I think it's important to try to understand the categorizations that people use for themselves, rather than imposing an external "scientific" classification (based on observable characteristics, like actual sexual activity, or the nature of the objects of desire) on people. This is science too, social science in fact. and, as a practical matter, it's counterproductive to tell people that they are "really" something other than what they believe themselves to be ("really" gay, say, rather than just someone who plays with guys).

I've also tried to describe MSMs (and guys on the DL in particular) in as sympathetic terms as I can manage. Frankly, their way of thinking is just foreign to me, so this takes some work. But then I don't really understand the thinking of people who devote their lives to (as they see it) God's work, or who climb the world's highest mountains, or lots of other people.

In any case, living on the DL has been very much in the news, and there's at least one non-fiction book (which I haven't yet read) about the subject: the best-selling On the Down Low: A Journey Into the Lives of "Straight" Black Men Who Sleep With Men, by J.L. King. [Not an auspicious title. There's the quotation marks around "straight". And the euphemism "sleep with", which is especially off-kilter, since one thing that guys on the DL do little of is actually sleep with other men. According to the (mostly unsympathetic) responses to the book I've seen, King (who has himself renounced life on the DL) is disapproving and judgmental, suggesting that guys on the DL are primarily responsible for the spread of AIDS in the African American community, especially to Black women.] There are works of fiction as well: D.L. Smith, Down Low, Double Life, and of course books by E. Lynn Harris.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at July 23, 2004 09:16 PM