As I watched Oprah Winfrey's recent Tyler Perry interview, during which the filmmaker talked about being sexually and physically abused as a child by both men and women, I was listening for something specific. Some girlfriends of mine who had already watched the interview said they believed that Perry practically admitted he was gay right there on network television.
As it turns out, that's not even close to what Perry was saying. He was talking about being victimized as a child and how that can severely tarnish how you see the world and how you see yourself.. But I have to admit, at first I heard what my friends heard.
Many black women probably had the same interpretation. That's because many of us are borderline paranoid about black men and their sexuality. Whether or not a potential love interest is gay has become a common conversation among my friends.
Many of us have learned to ask our dates if they've ever been with another man, especially if we identify certain mannerisms, speech patterns, activities or acquaintances that arouse our suspicions. Even though these qualities are not true indications that a man is necessarily gay or bisexual, a man who smacks his lips a lot when he speaks does make me uncomfortable.
I've never been told "yes" when I asked a potential love interest about his relations with other men. But I have walked away from a few relationships because, while I had no proof the man was gay, I could not convince myself that he was not.
How did we get here?
Well, many women have had some kind of experience. My first happened in my early 20s. I learned, six months after I ended a relationship, that the man I had been sleeping with may have been sleeping with other men. My source? A gay friend who said that he'd slept with my ex on more than one occasion. He also said that my ex had slept with other men. I never suspected a thing.
I escaped that relationship with my heart intact, but some women are not so lucky. One woman recently posted this on an Oprah.com message board: "[I] am a 48 year old woman who found out that the love of her life was gay. That was 20+ years ago. To this day [I] have been unable to completely move past it. I am still single. I am obese. I am constantly depressed. How do [I] finally deal with this emotional blow once and for all so [I] can get on with my life?"
For black women, author J.L. King helped shape our education and our fears when he released his infamous book, On the Down Low, in 2004. He provided a front-row seat to the down-low phenomenon in black communities. This was followed by countless stories in the news, from friends and in the community about women finding out that their men were secretly having sex with other men. Many of these stories involved men passing along HIV to black women, who are being infected with the virus at nearly 15 times the rate of white women.
HIV/AIDS is still a big part of what has us so on edge about this down-low stuff. It doesn't help that there is still much confusion about whether the alarmingly high number of black women with HIV/AIDS is due mostly to men on the down low.
Health organizations say no. A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals that 80 percent of black women contract HIV/AIDS from having sex with men who are HIV positive, but only 2 percent of those men report having sex with other men. Dr. Kevin Fenton, director of the CDC's National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, told NPR last year that men who are infecting black women could have gotten the disease a number of ways, including through intravenous drug use and sex with multiple partners.
But in the same interview, Fenton was asked about another CDC study (pdf) that revealed that most black men who have sex with other men don't see themselves as gay or bisexual, and therefore don't disclose to researchers or their partners that they are engaging in this behavior. Dr. Fenton acknowledged that this could also be involved in the transmission of the disease. "This factor of nondisclosure of this sort of diversity in sexual attitudes or lifestyles is certainly seen across all racial and ethnic groups …, " he said. "It's a very complex picture … that we're really trying to do more research to understand and to describe and to characterize."
Possibly fanning the flames of suspicion for many women is all of the media hype over the single black woman. Everywhere you look, there is an effort to uncover the mystery of why alarming numbers of black women can't find a good black man to marry. Whether it's true isn't the issue. We're being bombarded with this information.
For women who don't want to be alone, this extra media attention often creates a state of desperation and frustration that puts the bull's-eye on the man who's gay or on the down low. You can't tell me you've never been out with a group of girlfriends, seen a black man nearby whom you decided was gay, and had someone in your group point to him and say, "See, that's why so many of us are single."
I'm not saying that our fears have no merit. That CDC report I referred to earlier reveals that black men who sleep with other men are less likely than men of other ethnicities to consider themselves gay or bisexual. And I bet that men who are apparently deceiving themselves this way are also really good at covering it up. So we do have to be careful. It is what it is.
Years of dealing with this down-low phenomenon have forced many of us into a "gotcha" mentality — illustrated by the hype around Perry's Oprah interview — that, quite frankly, has left me exhausted. Unfortunately, the only way I feel I'll be able to relax is if there is more effort to ease the homophobia in our community. That could lessen the shame and stigma associated with being gay and give these brothers the freedom to be honest about who they are and to stop victimizing black women because they feel forced to live a lie.
Jacque Reid is a seasoned broadcast journalist and a contributing editor for The Root. Listen to her biweekly on the Tom Joyner Morning Show, and visit her on the Web at jacquereid.com.