Love on the Flip Side of the Down Low

Illustration for article titled Love on the Flip Side of the Down Low

All the hype about closeted ''down-low'' brothers a few years back sent a chill through the bedrooms of quite a few women and men. Now, a New York City-based documentarian could dislodge an iceberg with an online video series that explores the experiences of some self-identified straight women who date openly bisexual men.

Arielle Loren, a New York City-based writer and filmmaker, recently produced and released ''The Bi-deology Project,'' a study of mixed sexual orientation romances based on e-mail, phone calls and random street interviews with 30 women. (See Part 1 below.) She also explores lessons heterosexual women can learn from men who don't have a fixed sexual orientation. Loren, who went to New York University, came up with the idea for the project after developing feelings for a bisexual male friend, she told The Root.

''When the question finally came up for us to discuss whether we were going to take our friendship to the next level, he told me he thought I was a beautiful woman, but he was bisexual and he wasn't sure if I would be comfortable with his lifestyle,'' she said. ''I was devastated and crushed. He wasn't comfortable talking about it. I was left in the cold. So it got to the point where I really wanted some closure and the friendship ended.''


Although Loren has never dated a bisexual man, the conundrum sparked by her friendship generated a discourse between friends about whether heterosexual women can have relationships with bisexual men.

''I never thought about having a heterosexual relationship with someone who is bi,'' she said. ''And that people can really take the liberty to define their own sexuality and practice their sexuality how they want to. It doesn't mean that they are not interested in heterosexual relationships. ''

It's an important conversation to have, believes Tim'm T. West. The 38-year-old Houston resident has been bisexual since college. Although currently in a gay monogamous relationship, West said he also has had monogamous relationships with women. ''I think it's becoming more and more common for straight women to date bisexual men as some black women have developed a more nuanced understanding of sexuality,'' West told The Root. ''It's so much so that I had a woman say, 'well, I don't expect the man I fall in love with will be straight.' . . . She said she'd rather have a man be honest about his bisexuality than to have him boxed into these, really, categories, which some men use as an excuse to stay on the down low.''

Both Loren and West addressed the concern that some women have about the possibility of getting HIV from a male partner who sleeps with other men. In 2008, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that approximately 56,300 people were newly infected with HIV in 2006 (the most recent year that data is available). Over half (53 percent) of these new infections occurred in gay and bisexual men, the CDC said. African-American men and women were also strongly affected and were estimated to have an incidence rate than was seven times as high as the incidence rate among whites.


West, a coordinator of a program for young men who have sex with men, said he is a strong advocate for safe sex. He contracted the HIV virus from a gay partner in a monogamous relationship years ago and is forthcoming about his status with his male and female partners, some of whom were straight. His status, he said, is not a problem as long as he and his partner practice safe sex.

The Root: Do the CDC findings concern you?

Arielle Loren: I have yet to come across a report that has stated the highest reason women are getting STDs and HIV is because they are sleeping with men who also sleep with men. What we should focus on is the practice when it comes to the transmission of STDs. We know that if men and women are having unprotected sex, there is the likelihood for STD and HIV transmission. I think we need to be careful about demonizing homosexual and bisexual men for creating this outpour of STD transmission. Heterosexual transmission can do it, too, [as can] drug use with dirty needles.


TR: So you talked to 30 people to reach the conclusion that straight women are deciding to date openly bisexual men? Were they all in New York? And how big of a trend is it?

AL: ''The Bi-deology Project'' was not intended to be a scientific research study. I created the series to form a discourse surrounding an issue that is being neglected within heterosexual relationships. [The participants] are all over the country, New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Oklahoma and various states. It's actually pretty diverse in terms of where they are coming from. I talked to women of all races [and] of different socioeconomic groups.


I want to be careful with calling it a trend because I think trends are temporary. I think this has been going on for centuries. The truth of the matter is that bisexuality among men is still not that widely accepted. There are a lot of men who might be reluctant [to admit being bisexual]. I'm not sure we can ever get accurate numbers about what their preferences are.

TR: Do all of these women and men practice safe sex?

AL: Yes. Yes, they do.

TR: Given the backlash against ''down-low'' men, do you think this practice of women dating bisexual men is widely accepted? And aren't down-low men essentially bisexual?


AL: I'm not making ''The Bi-deology Project'' to convince women to date bisexual men. The purpose is to create a discourse. There may be women who view the project and see these different women and experiences and decide it's not for them. There might be other women who will be like, 'Whoa I never thought about it that way. Maybe I might try it.' But I do want to caution against equating bisexual men with down-low men. They are distinct from men who are being secretive. I don't necessarily think they are the same.

Down-low men are secretive. They don't want to discuss that they are sleeping with other men and women. Bisexual men—some of them are open. Some of them will tell you, 'I sleep with men, but I'm also interested in engaging in a relationship with a woman or I want to date a man seriously.' It is unfair to put the stamp of the DL bisexual man on all bisexual men . . . . I don't think that's an accurate depiction of what male bisexuality is.


AL: I think a lot of things have contributed to a black woman's inability to find suitable black male partners. I don't really buy into that 'woe is the single black woman' and she can't find a suitable mate. Black love is rooted in something deeper than contemporary society. When we think historically of how black families were separated when slavery happened and during the Reconstruction era, the process of putting together a black community was hard. In addition to that as we tried to rebuild our communities, help our children and fortify our families, etc., things deteriorated. But I still think that black love is strong, and I prefer to focus on the success stories versus perpetuating the story of nonexistent black love no matter the form.

TR: What do you mean by no matter the form?

AL: I believe that black love exists in homosexual and heterosexual relationships. Bisexuality exists in both spheres. That's what I hope to highlight in my project. The next segment is scheduled to be released in late June.


Lynette Holloway is a Chicago-based writer. She is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine.

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