Imagine you're in a loving relationship with a man who you think is committed to you. You would probably never think he would have an affair with another woman...let alone promiscuous sex with other men, but that's exactly what some say men who are living on the "down low" are doing.
This behavior isn't just harmful to a relationship; it can also be life-threatening to you and your partner. In 2004, AIDS was a leading cause of death for African-Americans ages 25 to 44. "That is starling," Oprah says. "All of my alarms went off." Women, college students and people over the age of 50 are at greater risk than ever before, and as Oprah discovers, men living on the down low may be one reason why.
One man sets the record straight about this secret lifestyle and explains how his sexual desires destroyed his family.
J.L. King had a life most would envy. He married his high school sweetheart, had two healthy children and was on the fast track to success. But, unbeknownst to his family and friends, he had a dark secret—he was living on the down low. "This desire I had kept creeping up on me," J.L. says. "Deep down inside, I had a desire to be with men. The desire was so strong that it overrode everything that I knew. It created this whole secret life that made me make up stories and try to cover up my tracks. A life that destroyed my family."
For J.L., the attraction to men started when he was a young boy, but he says family pressure made him keep his feelings buried inside. "I can remember having the attraction or the desire for the same sex probably when I was 10 years old," J.L. says. "But I grew up in a house with a father who insisted that his sons would be good men. [He said]: 'You will get married. You will go to school. You will serve your country. You will take care of your wife. You will be the perfect gentleman.'"
Even after he got married and had children, J.L. says his desire for men never went away. Over time, he began to act on these desires and engage in unprotected sex with male partners.
J.L.'s secret life was revealed when he says his wife followed him to the home of one of his sexual partners. "I can remember lying across the bed, so caught up and really thinking to myself, 'This is the life,'" J.L. says. "I had the best of both worlds."
J.L. believes his wife followed him that day, but he says he never saw her. "I got so caught up in what I was doing, but I know when I got home, something was not right." Soon after, J.L. and his wife divorced. Now, he says he's speaking out to warn other women about men like him.
His marriage may have ended, but J.L. doesn't believe it was all an act. "The marriage wasn't a lie because I loved my wife. I loved her," he says. "She was my best friend. We were running partners. What was a lie was the desire to have sex with other men. That was something that I did not reveal to her because I was scared."
Despite his sexual desires, J.L. says he doesn't consider himself gay. "Why do I have to put a label on myself to make you feel comfortable?" J.L. asks.
J.L. says there's a stigma that exists for gay men, and he doesn't see himself that way. "I don't want to get caught up in the whole gay culture because people look at gay people as being less than a man, that you are this sissy ... this less than," he says. "The greatest taboo is to be black and homosexual, and I refuse to be labeled and classified as this character."
J.L. says men in the black community who come out and say, "I'm gay and proud," are treated differently. "All of a sudden I become: 'Oh, I want you to meet my gay friend, J.L. I want you to meet my gay brother, J.L. I want you to meet my gay father, J.L.,'" he says. "I don't want that."
In fact, J.L. says he lives on the down low—also known as the D.L.—because he doesn't want anyone to know about his sex life. "I want to do what I do," he says. "It's my business, and it's none of your business what I do."
When Oprah asks J.L. if "down low" is another term for denial, he agrees.
J.L. says it's difficult for a woman to spot a man who's living on the D.L. "Women who are married, women who are comfortable, women who don't believe that this could happen to them need to take another look at what's going on in their house," J.L. says.
He also says a woman can't compete with a man's desires if he has feelings for other men. If a woman discovers that her husband is sleeping with another man, there is nothing she can do to stop his desire for men.
Where do men like J.L. meet potential sexual partners? Not at gay bars or nightclubs, he says. "If I'm going to pick up a brother, I'm going to where [a single woman] is going tonight," J.L. says. One place he says he goes to find a male partner is the black church.
"I can go anywhere in the country and find out what churches where most of the guys are, where I can make that connection," he says. "You're not going to find me in a gay club because I have nothing to do with the gay culture. That's them. That's their thing."
J.L. says he's intimate with both men and women, but he doesn't want to date men. "It's not 'I'm in love, let's get married, move together and have the perfect dog,'" he says. "If I was a gay man, I may want to be in a relationship with another man and play house. But when you're on the D.L., all you want to do is have sex. It's about gratification, not orientation."
When J.L. told his "D.L. brothers" that he was going to speak out about their lifestyle, he says they urged him not to. "There's a lot of black folks who still don't want me to talk about this—they don't want to hear it," he says. "They look at it as if I'm airing our dirty laundry. That I'm doing harm to African-American men."
"I think you're doing a great service to African-American women," Oprah says.
What made J.L. come clean? "I thought about my daughter and nieces," he says. "I knew that someone had to step forward and put a face to the behavior."
J.L.'s 29-year-old daughter, Ebony, found out about her father's behavior three years ago, and she says it's taken awhile to sink in. "It's kind of clicking now," Ebony says. "It's like, 'Okay, this is real.' Before [the down low] wasn't so real because I really didn't see much, and I wasn't hearing about it [except] what was coming from my father."
J.L. wants to make sure the man Ebony chooses to be with is the opposite of him. "One thing I said to her, and I've said it to other young girls, is, 'I don't want my daughter to marry a man like her father,'" he says. "Because if she married a man like me, she'd be putting herself at risk."
The dangers are high when you're living on the down low—a man's risky lifestyle could be deadly to himself and his sexual partners. Phil Wilson, the director of the Black AIDS Institute, says living on the down low is a new label for a behavior that's been going on for a long time. "The issue now is that we live in a more dangerous time," he says.
In 2004, black women accounted for 72 percent of all new female AIDS cases. "We should be outraged by that," Phil says.
There are a number of reasons this number is so high. First, Phil says black women don't think that they're at risk. Also, there's an unwillingness to talk about sexually transmitted diseases. "If you're unable to talk to your sexual partner about his sexual history, then maybe this is not the person you should be having sex with," Phil says. "It takes two people to transmit the virus. It only takes one person to stop it."
4 Ways to Prevent the Spread of AIDS:
Get informed about HIV and AIDS. "What you know can save your life," Phil says.
Get tested. "Knowing your HIV status can save your life," he says.
People who test positive need to get into treatment. "AIDS is not the automatic death sentence it once was," he says. "Treatment can save your life, but you've got to know your status."
Get involved. "At the end of the day, only when we are involved will we stop this epidemic," Phil says.