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

Women’s History Month #1: Me’shell Ndegeocello

I have been extremely busy, overworked, and also really bored with blogging lately, so I am gonna do some more fun blogs that don’t follow the press. So being Women’s History Month, I am gonna focus most of my posts this month on Black women, but particularly Bisexual, Lesbian, and Transgender Women in politics, film, music, academia, etc. I am beginning this series with Me’shell Ndegeocello.

I first saw Me’shell Ndegeocello in 1993, when BET was premiering the video Dred Loc,” the fisrt single from her debut album, Plantation Lullabies. I was in love, and immediately left the house to try to find the CD, which I believe is one of the best and most innovative records of that decade. It was a time when soul music from the UK–artists like Caron Wheeler, Carleen & Jhelisa Anderson and the Brand New Heavies (though lead singer Ndea Davenport is from the States)–were producing the better soul music than was coming out of the States. And Plantation Lullabies (alongside Joi’s Pendulum Vibe and Dionne Farris’ Wild Seed, Wild Flower) signaled the return of dyanmic, cutting edge, and complex soul music to the US.

As a bassist, lyricist, singer and emcee, she has released 5 studio recordings that are totally Me’shell, and yet completely different in terms of sound, subject, and approach. Hip-hop, Soul, Jazz, Funk, Folk, Rock, Gospel, Reggae and Punk are just some of the genres she’s unflinchingly dived into on each of her releases. And oftentimes many artists who “switch” from the style they normally play sound forced or even ridiculous. When she raps on “Hot Night” with Talib Kweli, she sounds like a hip-hop artist (and sometimes just as misogynist), and when she sings on “Sloganeer: Paradise,” she sounds like a punk rock artist without question. Though not a superstar, Me’shell is definitely a legend who’s influence on music will continue for years to come. There were too many videos of Me’shell on Youtube, but I selected the 1996 Leviticus: Faggot, written for a friend of hers who died from a gay-bashing.

In Memoriam: My Grandma

My paternal grandmother died this past Friday.

My grandmother was not a knitting and baking kinda granny. She chained smoked Pall Malls (she switched to the filtered kind only in the 1990’s). She loved to drink gin and juice. She listened to the Blues– and one summer many years ago she took off work and followed BB King on tour all over the country–from 5,000 seat venues to juke joints and “sugar shacks” all over the South.

She had a roaming spirit too. She travelled all over the country and the world. She especially loved Egypt, and had been several times over the years. I remember one year she went to Cairo with a friend. They flew to Paris, dropped their bags at the hotel, partied in Paris all night, and flew to Cairo the next morning.

She took shit from nobody and no-one. She could out-cuss anybody I’ve ever known. Many of the choice phrases I have come to use over the years came from her. She was a cross between Della Reese’s character in Harlem Nights and Tyler Perry’s “Madea.”  

As tough as she was, and she was not one to show alot of emotion or be overly affectionate, she was a retired registered nurse for the Veteran’s Administration. She was also really very proud of her grandchildren, and revelled in our success. I found out from a cousin a few years ago that that she cussed out someone who had something to say about “gay people,” which he knew was mostly for my benefit, and her unwavering support of me. 

In many ways I feel like I am who she might have been, in a different era, with no children and more opportunities available to her, but I definitely learned from her example. I learned from her how to be independent, that I could travel and see the world, that I could love clubs and bars and cocktails and that was alright and there was no shame in it! Most importantly, I learned from her (and other women in my young life) that a Black woman did not have to be anybody’s Mammy, and they didn’t have to be anybody’s punching bag, either!

I have been told by several people in the last several months that I am, or at least can be, somewhat of a mystery. There are aspects of my life that I don’t always discuss and whatnot. Well, I don’t know why people think they deserve or have earned the right to every aspect of one’s life. Is is because I am a writer? Is it that some people close to me, desire to be closer? And what does that mean, anyhow? What is it that they seek to gain? I am not sure. But I know that I don’t lie–if you ask me, I’l tell you. If it comes up in conversation and it seems relevant, I disclose. But I am not a fishbowl–clear ’round on all sides. Nor do I want to be. I am in many ways my grandmother’s child–a person in love independence, a person who digs nightlife  and club culture (but knows how to keep it at the proper distance). A person who can kick it with you or just about anyone–but that don’t mean we’re best friends. And if you cross a line, you’ll get cussed out!

I’ll miss you, Grandma.

Black Women Voting Power: New York Times & Washington Post Cover Clinton/Obama Tactics In South Carolina

It seems really strange that the New York Times and the Washington Post would run news stories both taking place in Black beauty shops to talk about th efight for Black women’s vote in South Carolina. But today, they did. Their stories, both accompanied by video, take different points of view on what Black women are thinking about how they are going to vote this year, and on the tactics Clinton and Obama’s machines are using to court their vote.

The most interesting thing to me is what the women in both stories say about how they’re voting, or considering their vote. In the Washington Post story–which focuses most on using the political tactics of reaching Black women voters–the women say:

“I’m not even thinking about color, but I guess in a way I am. I think basically white people won’t vote for him,” Bell said of Obama. “Isn’t that what voting is all about? You are voting for a person that you feel could be a winner.”

That pessimism that a black man could ever become president is a powerful force, even for Obama supporters such as Gaynell Wise, 51, an accountant who was getting her hair cut the day Champaign came into Passion Slice.

“I’m voting for him. I’m old-school. I know what’s going on,” she told Champaign. “He’s trying to take this country someplace it’s never been before. It’s going to take a lot for him to win. I know that. I know the system is not set up for him to win. It’s going to take a miracle and a lot of prayers for him to win. If you can get us to vote . . .” Most of the salons Champaign visits are frequented by younger women, who polls show have been more likely than their elders to vote for black presidential candidates.

But I think the New York Times story has a more nuanced and interesting approach. They talk to the women not just about the vote, but about their conflicted feelings about loving Bill Clinton and wanting to support Hillary mostly because of that. But they also are afraid, literally for Barack Obama’s life, and some are afraid to elect him, for it will mean his untimely demise:

Clara Vereen, who has been working here in rural eastern South Carolina as a hairstylist for more than 40 of her 61 years, reflects the ambivalence of many black women as she considers both Senator Barack Obama of Illinois and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

“I’ve got enough black in me to want somebody black to be our president,” she said in her tiny beauty shop, an extension of her home, after a visit from an Obama organizer. “I would love that, but I want to be real, too.”

Part of being real, said Ms. Vereen, whom everyone calls Miss Clara, is worrying that a black president would not be safe.

“I fear that they just would kill him, that he wouldn’t even have a chance,” she said as she styled a customer’s hair with a curling iron. One way to protect him, she suggested, would be not to vote for him.

And Mrs. Clinton?

“We always love Hillary because we love her husband,” Ms. Vereen said. Then she paused. Much of the chitchat in her shop is about whether a woman could or should be president.

That’s an interesting predicament. The Black women profiled in this story it could be said, want to elect Clinton because they like Bill, and because perhaps they want to seek revenge against the Republicans for the 2000 Florida voter fraud. The are scared to elect Brack not because they don’t think he’s Black enough (a media hype) but because they know he is more likely to be assassinated.

Perhaps for the first time in American history, people are really taking the voting interests of Black women seriously. I’ll give more of my analysis of this at NYU on Tuesday.

10/16: Race, Gender and The 2008 Election

If you’re in NYC, come check out this panel!

Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality
New York University
presents

GENDER, RACE, AND THE 2008 ELECTION

“Are Americans ready to elect a woman or a black man as president?”

A panel discussion with:

Kenyon Farrow, co-editor of Letters from Young Activists: Today’s Rebels Speak Out

Richard Kim, Associate Editor, The Nation

Marianna Torgovnick, English, Duke University

Moderated by Tavia Nyong’o, Performance Studies, NYU

October 16, Tuesday
6 to 7:30 PM

19 University Place, Great Room, 1st Floor
between 8th Street and Waverly Place

This event is free and open to the public.

Venue is wheelchair accessible. If you need sign language interpretation services or other accommodations, please let us know by Monday, October 8, if possible.

For more information or to contact us, call 212-992-9540, email gender.sexuality@nyu.edu, or visit us online at www.nyu.edu/csgs .