Last week Oprah Winfrey dedicated yet another episode to a story about black men who live “on the down low”—slang for bisexual men who don’t identify as gay and conceal that part of their lives—and the supposed link to HIV rates among black women. The link is tenuous at best, as Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researcher Greg Millet explains at a White House briefing you can watch here. Last week’s episode included a woman named Bridget who sued her ex-husband for passing HIV on to her. In it, Bridget gives Oprah an angry lesson on how difficult HIV treatment and care remains for many people who don’t have the resources of Magic Johnson. Some ColorLines readers have chimed in that Oprah ought to be congratulated for at least bringing up the topic of treatment, and for both listening to and airing Bridget’s lesson. That’s absolutely true. But Emory University HIV doc David Malebranche, who has also researched and written about so-called down low men, took deeper exception to the episode. He called it one more example of Oprah taking black male sexuality entirely out of context in order to sensationalize and pathologize it. Below, an open letter to Oprah that Malebranche posted on Facebook.
On a beautiful, sunny October 7th afternoon in Atlanta, Georgia, I sat down to enjoy a rare occasion where I could come home early from work to catch a new episode of your daily talk show that I have watched on and off for the better part of the past 3 decades. Upon pressing the info button on my remote, I learned that your show would be discussing a woman who “sued her husband for 12 million and won,” after finding out he had given her the HIV virus. To say I watched this episode unfold in horror is a profound understatement - I was uncomfortably riveted and disgusted for the entire hour.
To be quite clear, I wasn’t horrified or disgusted by the fact that this unfortunate Black woman had contracted HIV as a result of her husband’s secretive “Down Low” infidelities with other men. As a Black gay male, physician and public health advocate who has dedicated the past 12 years of my life to the behavioral prevention and treatment of HIV in the Black community, I have heard stories like your guest’s on this day more times than I would like to admit. To the contrary, the acidic taste of bile that coated the back of my throat as I heard her story was in response to the superficial and sensationalistic manner in which you handled the topic, and how it was apparent that you and your staff have learned absolutely nothing in the 6 years since you originally interviewed J.L. King on your “Down Low” episode in 2004.
Yes, you can claim that for this updated version of your “Down Low” show, you actually included the fact that publically “heterosexual” White men and men of other races are equally capable of having secretive homosexual affairs as their Black counterparts. And yes, this new version of J.L. King who again opportunistically sashayed onto your stage to promote himself now uses the word “gay” to describe his sexual identity (partly as a consequence of the fame and fortune he attained from appearing on your show). However, everything else about the show remained stuck in a metaphorical time warp in which Black women are portrayed as simple victims with no personal responsibility or accountability when it comes to their sexual behavior, and Black men are projected as nothing more than predatory liars, cheaters and “mosquito-like” vectors of disease when it comes to HIV.
I felt like I was like watching a train wreck or an car accident about to happen: it was so awful that despite wanting to turn it off, I found myself transfixed and could not bring myself to pick up the remote or change the channel. From the ominous background music and blurred images on the screen when discussing Black men being intimate with one another (God forbid!), to your declaration that reading your guest’s husband’s sexually explicit emails and messages on gay websites “blew your mind,” the way in which your show was staged did nothing to forward the conversation on the current facts or the social context that currently drives secretive same sex behavior among Black men and the current HIV racial disparity in the United States. Instead, what came across was a clear, fear-mongering and hyperbolic message: “Black women, look out for your husbands, they could be lying and cheating on you with other men and putting you at risk for HIV.” It was bad enough that 6 years ago, after your original “Down Low” show, you single-handedly launched a major media and cultural hysteria where Black women across the country were now searching for signs of how they could tell if their men were “on the Down Low” through stereotypical signs and ridiculously offensive generalizations about how homosexual men think and act. Your show also helped J.L. King and other self-proclaimed “HIV experts” make a lot of money off this capitalistic, fear-based industry to promote their books, movies and narcissistic products on the so-called “Down Low.” It did nothing, however, but open new wounds and put salt in the old scars caused by centuries of sexual exploitation and calculated pathologizing of Black bodies in the United States and internationally. The way you and your staff have handled this topic has done nothing but widen the already irreparable rifts between Black men and women, as well as between Black heterosexual and non-heterosexual peoples.
While I realize that this is your show’s “final season,” let me give you and your staff some suggestions on how you can better address this issue of the “Down Low” and HIV in the Black community if you ever wish to revisit this issue during this year:
1. Please do some research on the facts explaining why so many Black women in the United States are contracting HIV. I can guarantee you that what you find will surprise you, as the vast majority of cases are not due to so-called “Down Low” Black men. Remember that in other countries like South Africa, India, Russia and China, there are millions of HIV cases attributable to heterosexual transmission. Ask yourselves where is the proof, outside of anecdotal stories that are splashed on your show, BET and the pages of Essence magazine, that bisexual men are primarily accountable for this horrible disparity among Black women?
2. If you are going to tell the story of HIV in the Black community, please give equal consideration to the social context and personal story/struggles of Black men who contract the virus, regardless of whether it is through IV drug use or sexual behavior. I can tell you for certain that if you sit down and ask these men to tell their stories, you will undoubtedly have your eyes opened to the fact that there is much more to their lives than the “predator” labels you so easily ascribe to their actions. And believe it or not, Black men can also be “victims” of this disease when exposed through their wives or female sexual partners who don’t tell them about the other people with whom THEY have been having sex.
3. If you are going to talk about the so-called “Down Low,” then really talk about it. That means, be prepared to discuss how Black men are socialized in this country to believe that our manhood solely exists in our athletic prowess, entertainment value, and the size and potency of the flap of skin that dangles between our legs. Moreover, be prepared to talk about how these manhood expectations placed on Black man are in stark contrast to the stereotypical images and expectations of “gay” men we see in the media: White men who assume a gender performance of how women are traditionally expected to act. And then talk about our society’s pervasive disdain, hatred and religious condemnation of anything that does not fall into a heterosexual “man-woman” norm of relationships and behavior, and how this puts pressure on men to deny who they truly are for fear of rejection and isolation. Only when you begin to scratch the surface of these dynamics can you begin to rise above your current myopic and pathologic lens through which you view and project secret homosexuality and bisexuality as an “immoral act” on your show.
4. Have your team do better research on the notion that just because men do not disclose that they have same sex relations to their female sexual partners DOES NOT automatically mean that they are irresponsible when it comes to condom use. Simply put, “coming out of the closet” does not mean that a formerly “Down Low” brother will increase his condom use. I can provide you team with numerous studies to support this statement if it goes against your preconceived notions of the so-called “benefits” of “coming out.”
5. Withhold your judgment and disdain for explicit homosexual websites until you take time to explore websites like craigslist, nudeafrica.com, xtube.com and the many others that heterosexuals are just as freaky, raunchy and sex-crazed as homosexuals are. If you really want to read some conversations, pictures and videos that will “blow your mind,” check out these websites and do a show on how HUMAN BEINGS are sexual creatures - instead of suggesting that homosexually active people have a monopoly on that market.
6. Finally, if you are going to have a discourse on homosexuality or bisexuality on your show in the future, please be bold and courageous enough to tell the various sides of men’s stories. We are not all self-loathing, secretive, unprotected sex-having, disease ridden liars. Surely in the work you have done in the entertainment field over the past 3 decades, you have interacted with enough same gender loving men to realize that sexuality is a fluid journey for anyone, and that there are many Black homosexual men who are well-adjusted, comfortable with who we are, and at peace with our lives.
Oprah, I was so disappointed with your show and treatment of this follow up to your “Down Low” episode 6 years ago that I don’t know if I really care to watch the remainder of this, your final season. As a seasoned journalist, you have intricately described and explored the nuances of diverse topics such as eating disorders, mental health, spirituality, violence and criminality, cultural diversity and even the benevolent nature of human beings on numerous shows. You have approached these topics with a sensitivity and attention to detail regarding the social contexts driving human behavior, that even the most skeptical viewer can understand why some people do the things they do. So why is it with this topic (the so-called “Down Low”), particularly when it comes to the task of actually humanizing Black men, that you and your staff appear mentally, emotionally and intellectually incapable of creating a show that shows the rich, diverse and complex experience of being a Black male and homosexual in this country? Is it really that difficult?
As one of the most powerful human beings this country has seen in the past 30 years, and someone whose show I grew up watching, it would be nice if you realized your influence and took more personal responsibility for the quality of your shows that address serious topics like HIV in the Black community. The careless manner in which you continue to drive a wedge between relationships among Black men and women, between heterosexuals and homosexuals in this country through your one-sided analysis of Black sexuality in your shows is reprehensible. And I for, one, refuse to sit by idly and say nothing while you spoon feed sensationalism and fear to our community who will all too willingly eat every last drop because it comes from your hand. I need you to do better Oprah - the world is watching.
David J. Malebranche, MD, MPH