Guest Post: An Open Letter to Oprah Winfrey concerning the “Down Low”

The following was originally posted as a note on facebook by my friend and much respected colleague, Dr. David Malebranche. I watched the Oprah episode in question, and had many of the same concerns. There was some debate and responses to David written, which I may come back and answer this week.

An Open Letter to Oprah Winfrey concerning the “Down Low”

Dear Oprah,

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

Assistant Professor

Emory University Division of General Medicine

49 Jesse Hill Jr. Drive

Suite 413

Atlanta, GA 30303

(404) 778-1630

(404) 778-1602 fax

dmalebr@emory.edu

Brazilian Men Sex Trafficked in Spain

Over the last year I have heard straight men who are very prominent in the intimate partner domestic violence movement state in public forums, before hundreds of people, that “men don’t have to get up and think about what ind of clothes they put on that say, and is it going to invite some kind of violence or assault,” or some form of the message “men don’t have to worry about sexual violence.”

Really? Because as a black gay man, I worry about that every day. The possibility of rape or sexual assault is not out of the realm of possibility for me.  In fact, there are statistics that show gay men have a disproportionate rate of child sexual abuse histories. And I think for a lot of men who are even straight, so much of the violence men perpetrate against each other has very gendered aspects of those interactions.

Today, the Associated Press reported on a story showing that in Spain, police have busted up a sex trafficking ring where Brazilian men (keep in mind Brazil has the largest number of Black people outside the continent of Africa–just to help provide some racial context for who may in fact constitute “Brazilian.”) were being forced to do sex work with other men. The AP writes:

The victims, men in their 20s and estimated to number between 60 and 80, were mainly recruited in northern Brazil and saddled with debts of up to euro4,000 ($5,000) as the cost of bringing them to Spain.

Some were duped into thinking legitimate jobs awaited them as go-go dancers or models; others knew they would be working in the sex industry, but not that they had to be prepared for sex around the clock and would be moved from one province to another depending on demand for their services, Nieto told a news conference.

The men had to give half their earnings to the gang, and pay for rent and food in the apartments where they worked.

To show the total racism of the Spanish authorities, the article also notes that on top of busting up this ring, 17 of the “prostitutes” were then also arrested for being in Spain illegally. Despite being held against their will.

I want to be clear that trafficking and coercive sex is different from people who willingly participate in sex work, even if the conditions are often dangerous or less than desirable, or the reasons which they chose it have to do with other structural problems.

I also don’t point this out to usurp any discussion about the impact of sex trafficking on women identified people, or sexual violence and rape against women. But it is to say, that I wish that the men who have made their careers and mission to educate other men about violence against women, don’t continue to make false assumptions about the “safety” that all men are supposed to have, when clearly many of us, because of our gender or sexual orientation, race and/or class,  may not in fact be so safe.

(Note: I put a lot of thought into what image to post with this piece. I didn’t want to find a picture of “Brazilian men” that further hypersexualizes them (They are hypersexualized enough), and that would further perpetuate a strange desire to consume their bodies, while trying to take seriously the situation of these men being forced to have sex and financially exploited precisely because of the way their bodies are desired. The Advocate.com, for instance, went in the other direction of their stock image choice.)

Selling AIDS: Wiretap Mag On HIV Prevention Messaging

I am Gay StayI recently met the author of this new piece on Wiretap Magazine called “Selling Ourselves: Questioning HIV Prevention Campaigns,” Kirk Grisham, through mutual friends and he’s a kindred spirit in trying to really push against all of the assumed narratives about “men who have sex with men,” and notions of “community” and “risk” in HIV prevention work. Let’s hope we get into Mailman, Kirk! LOL!

I have gotten into debates on this very blog about the meaning and efficacy of social marketing campaigns. While not perfect, and alone will not end the epidemic, I think they can be effective in breaking social norms, especially when they speak to people as having agency, value, and break certain silences and social taboos. In short: They get people talking and thinking.

Conversely, social marketing campaigns can also be stigmatizing, blaming, and as Grisham says in the article:

City agencies, private firms and the populations themselves share blame for producing these messages, which begs the question: Do we know what’s good for us? Are we simply propagating the same stigma, homophobia and racism vis-à-vis mainstream society through marketing, as seen in the Homoboy campaign?

Do these negative, racist and stigma-filled homophobic messages sell? Would positive messages work any better? Can one sell liberation?

He names some of the most problematic campaigns to come out in recent years, including “Don’t Be a Bitch. Wear A Condom.” The response he gets from Better World Advertising Exec Les Pappas (who I worked with on the WeArePartof You.org capaign)” basically says to Grisham that the message tested well in focus groups.

homoboy_l1

Where are your politics? When I was at New York State Black Gay Network and we did the campaign with Better World, we were very clear that we did not want to do some tacky stigmatizing campaign that talked down to Black gay men. The campaign we ended up with was taken to focus groups, but our values and politics shaped it from jump. This Don’t Be a Bitch message probably would test in the current social context where Black folks are running around talking about “Man Up” and “No Homo.” Does that make it right? Is it the goal of social marketing campaigns, as they pertain to public health interventions, just to mimick what else is already out there in the world? Or to actually know that what you’re doing isn’t doing more damage than it will acutally do any good? What are the measurements of success?

Very little reporting happens that questions the more subtle forms or racism and homopbobia that happen in do-gooder public relations campaigns. Thanks for continuing a conversation, Kirk.

Miss Me? I’ve Been On The Radio!

Hey —

I missed you. I really do. Life has been really busy. The kind of busy that’s unsustainable. Anyhoo, I will be getting back to the blog real soon, but in the meantime, here’s a couple radio interviews I’ve done this past week.

WBAI’s Out FM: I was discussing the new report that shows that men on the down low is not a term people use uniformly, and that they practise as much safe sex as out gay men (non-DL identified). On top of that, they have less HIV prevalence than out Black & Latino gay men. LISTEN UP!

This Show is So Gay! This show, I talk politics and the personal–there’s some stuff on here I’ve never talked about publicly, so if you wanna hear the dish, LISTEN UP! This show is definitely worth getting the podcast on iTunes!

Drug War Update: Global, National, & New York

This week,the world’s got drugs on the mind. Here’s what’s happening at the global level, nationally, and then here in New York State.

GLOBAL

Days after the President of West African country Guinea-Bissau was assassinated (rumored to have been supported by South American drug cartels), the new UN Political Declaration on Drugs was announced this week as a follow-up to the 10 year plan to reduce global drug use and trade (HAHAHAHA!). Many NGOs (including Human Rights Watch & the International Harm Reduction Association (IHRA)) and editorial pages across the globe concurred that it does not go far enough in moving UN members to adopt less punitive, and more public health approaches to drug abuse, which factors in the fight against HIV/AIDS. In fact, the Human Rights Watch (in a press release I received from the media department of the International AIDS Society) noted that:

“What is at issue is a series of measures known collectively as ‘harm reduction services,’ which have been endorsed by UN health and drug-control agencies, including the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, UNAIDS and the World Health Organization. These measures include needle and syringe exchange and medication-assisted therapy (for example, with methadone), both inside and outside prisons, as essential to address HIV among people who use drugs. The groups noted that a wealth of evidence proves harm reduction is essential to HIV prevention for people who use drugs. The action was taken against the direct advice of UNAIDS, the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and the UN special rapporteurs on health and on torture.

Not only that, but The Economist published an editorial (which is also its cover story) detailing why a global war on drugs is a failed project to reduce drug use. The write:

Indeed, far from reducing crime, prohibition has fostered gangsterism on a scale that the world has never seen before. According to the UN’s perhaps inflated estimate, the illegal drug industry is worth some $320 billion a year. In the West it makes criminals of otherwise law-abiding citizens (the current American president could easily have ended up in prison for his youthful experiments with “blow”). It also makes drugs more dangerous: addicts buy heavily adulterated cocaine and heroin; many use dirty needles to inject themselves, spreading HIV; the wretches who succumb to “crack” or “meth” are outside the law, with only their pushers to “treat” them. But it is countries in the emerging world that pay most of the price. Even a relatively developed democracy such as Mexico now finds itself in a life-or-death struggle against gangsters. American officials, including a former drug tsar, have publicly worried about having a “narco state” as their neighbour.

The failure of the drug war has led a few of its braver generals, especially from Europe and Latin America, to suggest shifting the focus from locking up people to public health and “harm reduction” (such as encouraging addicts to use clean needles). This approach would put more emphasis on public education and the treatment of addicts, and less on the harassment of peasants who grow coca and the punishment of consumers of “soft” drugs for personal use. That would be a step in the right direction. But it is unlikely to be adequately funded, and it does nothing to take organised crime out of the picture.

National

It seems as though the US’ policy on the War on Drugs is going to somewhat shift to a conversation less about public health, and more about “national security.” Over the last week, media stories about the possibility of Mexico becoming a failed state due to the violent drug cartels that are wreaking havoc on the country, and that the government is failing to control. Fears, and what is somewhat true, that Mexican gangs that have ties to the drug trade are spreading across the US in major cities. The US government seems to be signaling a fear of the kinds of violence seen in Mexico spreading to the US, and with an increase in Mexican immigrants if drug cartels do succeed in rendering the existing government powerless. (There is evidence that many of the weapons are coming from the US, and we’re not likely to have an gun reform laws anytime soon.) Notice that Department of Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano’s recent appearances on television talking about this problem.

Secondly, yesterday, Obama nominated Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske as Drug Czar, while he removed the post as a Cabinet-level position. I don’t know much about this new Czar, but being a police chief doesn’t give me much hope of a real shift in policy. However, Drug Policy Alliance’s Ethan Nadelmann in a Huffington Post piece, remains cautiously optimistic based on what’s happened in Seattle during the police chief’s tenure:

What gives me hope is the fact that Seattle has been at the cutting edge of harm reduction and other drug policy reform developments in the United States over the last decade. The city’s syringe exchange programs are well established and harm reduction is well integrated in Seattle’s approach to local drug policy. Marijuana has been legal in Washington State for medical purposes for a decade. In 2003, Seattle voters passed a ballot initiative making marijuana arrests the lowest law enforcement priority. And the King County Bar Association has demonstrated national leadership in exploring alternatives to current prohibitionist policies.

While Kerlikowske has not spoken out in favor of any of these reforms, he is clearly familiar with them and has not been a forceful opponent. Given the high regard in which he is held by other police chiefs around the country, Kerlikowske has the potential to provide much needed national leadership in implementing the commitments that Barack Obama made during the campaign. He also surely recognizes that substance abuse or run-ins with the law can touch anyone, including his own family. He will hopefully advocate for treatment instead of incarceration for nonviolent drug law offenders.

New York State

Almost 2 weeks ago, the NYS Assembly passed a bill that would basically gut the Rockefeller Drug Laws, and after nearly 40 years, return discretion to judges for sentencing and not give these automatic stiff penalties for petty drug charges (although racist judges will still mean racial disparity in sentencing. That’s how we got talked into mandatory minimums in the first place.). Now the problem is what the NYS Senate and Governor Patterson is going to do with this bill. Will they leave it as written, or cut the scope of it so it becomes another whack reform that means nothing. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver wrote yesterday in an op-ed for The Daily News:

By now it should be beyond debate that these laws have failed. One serious consequence: massive racial disparity in sentencing. According to the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, the rate of drug use in America is generally 8.2% for whites, 7.2% for Latinos and 8.7% for African-Americans. Yet the Rockefeller laws have filled New York’s prisons with tens of thousands of drug offenders, 90% of whom are African-American or Latino.

The laws have also failed to curb drug abuse. According to statistics from the National Survey on Drug Abuse conducted by the Health and Human Services Department, illicit drug use among New Yorkers has not abated since the passage of the drug laws in 1973.

Finally, 35 years of unambiguous data make clear that the Rockefeller laws have had no appreciable impact on combating violent crime. All evidence shows no correlation between the Rockefeller laws and the subsequent increase, followed by an equally precipitous decrease, in crime in New York.

RIP: Shelton Jackson

I met Shelton once or twice. He was definitely someone we’ve lost too soon, at age 31 to complications from AIDS. He was featured a few year’s ago on The Body.com. Here’s a letter from one of his co-workers at the African American Office of Gay Concerns in Newark.

Shelton Jackson (1978 – 2009)

Dear Friends,

Although many of you may have already heard, it is my sad duty to tell you that Shelton S. Jackson passed away on Monday, March 2, 2009 at approximately 6:00 am. His death was due to complications due to AIDS.

He was a patient at UMDNJ where he has been for the last month or so, hoping to get out soon and get into Broadway House. Many of his friends visited him from as far away as Atlanta and Los Angeles. His network of friends and colleagues spread throughout the USA as he was part of a national college speakers’ bureau for young people who were HIV-positive and not afraid to talk about it. Shelton was even featured in the CDC campaign “Take The Test–Take Control” for National Testing Day, and a similar campaign, “Does HIV Look Like Me?”
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Shelton was the very first person hired by the AAOGC. For three years he was our “front man,” and the welcoming face of our agency. Believe it or not, that was almost exactly seven years ago. It was he and I who shopped for the office furniture, put up posters, bought all the supplies and were able to officially open the office on March 15, 2002. Soon after we opened, Shelton re-entered Essex County College, where he became Editor of the college newspaper. He went on to write an publish two books of prose/poetry– The Second Chapter: Acceptance and The Dawn Of A New Day.

AIDS has truly cut this young man down in the prime of his life. He was just 31-years-old, and has done as much activism as one person can do. Even to the end, he was working as a consultant for us for our upcoming social marketing project. Shelton Jackson will certainly be missed.

The world has lost a great fighter–and we want the world to know that!

Sincerely,

Gary Paul Wright

Housing Works Update: Where Are All the Black Gay Men?

This article from Housing Works’ Weekly Update raises similar issues I raised in my op-ed for The Defenders Online about HIV/AIDS in the Black community, and the silence around Black gay men.

Two weeks ago individuals and organizations across the nation marked National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. Judging by many of the articles, press releases and events commemorating the day, however, you might never guess that the highest percentage of new HIV infections in 2006 was among black gay men.

Why, even on a day dedicated to black AIDS awareness, do black gay men remain a footnote?

“It’s symptomatic of the problem we face of ridding our community of HIV in order to break the back of the epidemic,” said Ernest Hopkins, policy director of the Black Gay Advocacy Coalition. “The most heavily impacted population by percentages is black gay men. If you want to talk about this epidemic you have to start there, and then move very quickly to black women, or you’re not doing your job.” Read the rest of the article here: