After six months of being on a fruitless New York City apartment search I hopped a train to my sweet home of Chicago for a much-needed break. While there, I made my way to a south-side literary event featuring first-time author J.L. King at the Spoken Word Caf'. His book, On the Down Low: A Journey Into the Lives of 'Straight' Black Men Who Sleep With Men, has been kicking up controversy and piquing the interest of an audience made up mostly of black women. King, who is HIV-negative, writes about his own down-low hookups as well as the DL culture at large and the health risks it poses to people associated with the life.
After adjusting a clip-on mike on his leather button-down shirt, King'who is 40-something, cocoa-brown'skinned, bald, bespectacled, and goateed'tells the standing-room-only audience of rapt African-American sistahs that up until three years ago he regularly deceived his now'ex-wife and three grown children by secretly making booty calls with other married black men. Back then, neither he nor the men he slept with considered themselves to be gay or bisexual or identified with white-gay ideals. In their minds, they were simply heterosexual men who occasionally engaged in man-to-man sex together.
But those lying and cheating days are all behind him, he says. And on this particular night King has recast himself in the role of a martyr who has endured death threats and hate mail over his actions and has risked everything'including being shunned by his church and former DL bedfellows'to warn women to check their man and protect themselves. 'Keep in mind that I am the only brother in the country'the country'' King says with a dramatic pause. 'I'm the only one who has stepped forward about this.'
Well, at least that's what his publicist would have you believe. King's salacious marketing hook is what helped him to land on Oprah, BET Tonight, and PBS's The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer. But while it's dubious that he's the only brother'ever'to break ranks and publicly distance himself from the age-old DL fraternity, he's certainly the first to reap such financial benefits from doing so: He's rumored to have a six-figure book deal and the ability to demand speaking fees of up to $10,000 a gig.
The press generated by King, a relative newcomer to the HIV-prevention arena, could be this year's greatest asset to struggling African-American AIDS organizations. He's the first person to attract sustained national attention to a domestic black AIDS issue since the Bush administration began ignoring them all in 2001. And without even trying, King's message exposes the rift between white-gay and African-American community dynamics and the impact that gap can have on effective prevention efforts.
Nevertheless, King has drawn ire from folks who should be his natural allies. In an article about King on his news Web site, black gay activist Keith Boykin bemoans, 'There are many problems with the DL story, but the major problem is that it's based on the principle of vilifying the very people we need to reach.' And a seething columnist from New York's Gay City News sized up the author this way: 'King isn't a human being. He's a product.'
King may be a published author in search of an audience. Tonight, with all the finger-snapping and neck-rolling directed at him, it is clear that this assembly of women shows more solidarity with his ex-wife than him. And most of the members of the audience are more interested in picking up hints about how to tell if their man is creepin' on the DL than in King's prevention message. Perhaps King has stepped forward, but he's standing alone.
Whitfield is one of the nation's leading journalists reporting on AIDS among African-Americans. A frequent Vibe contributor, he is based in New York City.