The Down-Low Delusion

Why the media's obsession with blaming "undercover brothas" for the HIV epidemic in black America is hurting us.

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Most important, any one of these experts would have said that there are heterosexual black men who have HIV, and HIV-positive women who pass the virus to men, and everyone needs to get tested.

Perhaps the hard facts just weren’t sensational enough for The View.

Unfortunately, AIDS-related misinformation is not just relegated to silly morning talk shows. Last October, CNN, which bills itself as America’s most trusted news source, ran a segment in its Black Men in the Age of Obama special about gay and bisexual black men.

Instead of discussing pertinent issues that gay and bisexual black men in this country face, CNN anchor Don Lemon, Essence Editor-in-Chief Angela Burt-Murray and a panel of ostensibly straight black men (none of whom possessed HIV or LGBT expertise) used the time to talk about how the down low is killing black women. Once again, there was no proof to back up these claims, just regurgitated homophobic hoopla being passed off as news. No bias, no bull? Yeah, right.

And to a certain extent, I get it. Thanks to J.L. King and Oprah, the breakdown of Terry McMillan’s mess of a marriage, countless newspaper and magazine articles, that Law & Order: SVU episode and our own homophobia, the threat of the down-low man–our generation’s brutal black buck–has been branded onto our cultural imagination and ingrained in our vernacular.

It has infiltrated our newsrooms and our common sense. And while it may be difficult for folks to wrap their heads around an alternate explanation, let’s start trying. Yes, everyone needs to take personal responsibility in their own sex lives when it comes to HIV, but journalists have a responsibility as well–to fairly and accurately report the truth, not make it up as they see fit.

We have to remember that media–whether magazines, radio shows, talk shows or, most important, news outlets–are extremely powerful. People trust the information they are given and rely on it to stay informed. Media shapes how people see themselves and the world around them. And in the case of the down-low brotha, the messages they carry can alter the ability to accurately perceive one’s own risk of contracting HIV.

Looking at how AIDS is covered in the media, what are folks really learning? Black women are “learning” that if their man is not “suspect,” then condoms are not really a necessity. Straight black men are “learning” that this disease has nothing to do with them because they are not gay. Meanwhile, the two are having unprotected sex with each other while we act brand new about how and why this disease is flourishing in our community.

As someone who has written about the pandemic for the past four years, having worked with and consulted with some of the media outlets mentioned, I find it frustrating to see them continue to be tragically off base and completely unapologetic about it, especially when the right information is just one mouse click or a phone call away.

But solely blaming media for this disconnect is as simplistic as the media blaming the AIDS crisis on closeted gay men. People who work in the world of AIDS prevention and treatment–myself included–need to stop self-segregating and begin sharing our knowledge with media outlets to ensure accurate coverage. And when those outlets don’t get it right, we need to take them to task instead of complaining among ourselves.

Also, those in the LGBT movement, especially the national organizations, need to overcome their AIDS phobia and stop worrying that the stigma of HIV–once labeled a “gay disease”–will negatively affect the work they are doing around issues such as marriage equality, hate crimes and job discrimination. You are still very much part of the AIDS community, whether you like it or not. Stop distancing yourselves and start speaking up.

If we’ve learned anything from Hughley’s and Shepherd’s erroneous comments, it’s that despite the fact that the information is out there and easily accessible, the media and the average American don’t know what they need to know about HIV (and perhaps they don’t want to). But as we enter the third decade of this epidemic, we don’t have the luxury to continue to be this ignorant. Somehow that knowledge gap needs to be closed. There are just too many lives at stake for it not to be.

Kellee Terrell is news editor for The Body, a website about HIV and AIDS. To learn more about the epidemic in the black community, go to The Body’s African-American HIV/AIDS Resource Center.