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

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.

Why I Love & Hate Black Gays: Mariah & Janet Read the Divas!

I have recently been having a lot of conversations with Black women, particularly lesbian friends, about Black gay misogyny. Without going into grave detail (right now anyways), what are the ways in which black gay male performances of black women actually support patriarchy more than they do to disrupt gender norms? Why is it that many people in our community can only be bothered with women they consider femme, attractive, or some other superficial markers of womanhood while are incredibly hostile to women, lesbians in particular who don’t perform for them, or fit certain high-femme gender norms of what it means to be a woman?

In any case, while I sometimes really am annoyed by Black gay misogyny, I cannot help but also be entertained and highly value the ways in which we continue to develop a whole language and culture that is a whole thing all its own. Case in point, the following video (and if you go to Youtube there’s a whole series of these) of a fake conversation between Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey, which the two describe their frustrations with the other so-called Divas and Legends, reading as if they are two queens from the Ball scene. And what’s funnier is the script run through a computer voice interpreter which strips away the contours of how we actually sound, but you get to hear the actual words and phrasing. This is clearly written by a Black gay man, and while I have to ponder at the ways in which we invoke the feminine that are sometimes horribly problematic, it is at the same time very creative, inspired, and in this case, damn funny.

OK. One more. Whitney Houston schools Keri Hilson.

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:

Silence is KIlling Black Gays as Much as HIV

From The Defenders Online (the blog of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund).

…28 years into the AIDS epidemic, that silence that once protected us, is now killing us. As we near Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day on February 7th, all sorts of pronouncements will be made about the devastation HIV/AIDS is having on the community. And though we are disproportionately impacted by the epidemic, concern for black men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender women will not likely come from most quarters of the community. If black leadership is at all concerned with ending this epidemic, we’re going to have to acknowledge and overcome the homophobia that is driving it in the community.

Read the entire op-ed here.

New Orleans Violence #2: Two Black Gay Men, 1 Transgender Bodies ID’d

A few weeks ago, a friend in New Orleans, a Black gay man, emailed me about a very dustrubing scene. He was in the French Quarter, and ran into a young boy, no older than the age of 12, hustling on the street. My friend spoke to the boy, and emailed me asking me what he should do. I told him that he probably couldn’t stop the boy from turning tricks if that’s what he had to do for whatever reason, but he should make sure the kid had his number in case of emergency and that he should try to keep tabs on him until some plan of action could be employed. Letting the New Orleans Police Department throw this 12 year old in jail, in a state that’s been sued for abuses inside its juvenile facilities by the US Justice Department was simply not an option either of us wanted to use, which would likely make the situation worse. It’s not a choice anyone wants to have to make.

In any case, the next time my friend saw the boy, he was being punched and slapped around by his mother, on the street somewhere. My friend intervened, and seeing that the mother was high on some substance, it became clear to my friend why the boy, as he told my friend the first night, bursting into tears, he could not stand to be at home.  My friend a few days later ran into the mother, who had sent the boy to live with his father, and broke into tears about the need to clean up from her addiction. She promised for forward along my friend’s info to her son.

Unfortunately, this is not the last bout with violence this child, if he is in fact gay or queer, is likely to face. The threat of violence is omnipresent for us, and is too often manifest in the most gruesome of ways.  Around the same day my friend made a new friend of this mother after her son was sent away, two Black gay men, and another Black queer (maybe transgender, maybe just in drag) were found murdered in the house they were renting in New Orleans. As Rod 2.0 originally reported, apparently the three were originally from Mississippi, and were identified as Felix Pearson, 19; Kenneth Monroe, 27; and Darriel Wilson, 20. According to the news piece in the Times Picayune, the bodies were discovered when someone saw half of a “man’s” body hanging out of one of the windows.

There is speculation as to whether this was a hate crime or not–a distinction that makes little sense to me. But the facts of the case, besides the fact that all three were killed, look like the very ways that most gay men and trans women die:

1. No signs of forced entry. Usually this means it was a person that the victim knew in some way. Often for gay men, it is men who they’ve already had some kind of sexual relationship with.

2. Usually there is extra-violence or desecration done to the bodies, or the victims are killed execution-style.

One of my mother’s best friends, a Black gay man, was murdered similarly in 1986, and I’ve seen this pattern way too many times over the years.

Speaking of things I am tired of living through and writing about, few days before the New Orleans murders, a lesbian in Richmond, California was raped by four men, and seems to have been specifically targeted because of the rainbow flag on her car.