Health officials have worried for years about the high rate of HIV among African Americans. Now the federal Centers for Disease Control is examining how one group, known as men on the “down low,” could be spreading the disease among black women.
Men on the down low have sex with other men while keeping a heterosexual public identity. Recent books and articles about black men on the DL, as it is also called, have raised concerns that they pass HIV to unsuspecting wives and girlfriends.
But because the down low is defined by secrecy, almost nothing is known about the number of men of any race who are on the down low, how many have HIV or AIDS, or their sexual activity.
The definition of down low depends on who does the defining. The term comes from the world of hip-hop and R&B music, where it means an illicit relationship. As adapted by a subculture of black men, being on the down low describes men who have sex with other men but appear straight, have relationships with women, and don’t acknowledge being gay or even bisexual.
—In 2002, African Americans accounted for more than half of new HIV cases reported in the United States, though they are only 13 percent of the population.
—In 2003, African American men accounted for 44 percent of new AIDS cases among all men.
—In 2003, African American women accounted for two-thirds of new AIDS cases among all women. White women accounted for 15 percent and Latinas 16 percent.
—The rate of HIV and AIDS was 58.2 cases per 100,000 black women, and only 2.9 per 100,000 white women. The rate for Latinas was 8.1 per 100,000.
—The leading cause of HIV infection among African American women in 2002 was heterosexual contact, followed by injection drug use, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
One woman, he said, was married to a man for 17 years, including 10 years when he was in prison. After his release, she became HIV positive.
The man is also positive but has refused to submit himself for care, Scott said. He has since gotten a new girlfriend, who is pregnant, and the doctor is not sure if she knows the man’s status.
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Jason B. Johnson, San Francisco Chronicle, May 2
Ava Gardner-Shipp thought she had found the perfect man: a handsome respected minister who could cook and quote Scripture from memory and adored her and her daughter.
“I met him in Bible study,” she recalled. “We used to go to Sunday school services together. All the things I was looking for, he had. He was perfect.”
But Gardner-Shipp’s storybook marriage unraveled two years later when she learned that her husband had knowingly infected her with HIV. He’d married her to hide his down-low status, she said, and because he “didn’t want to die alone.”
He told her she was only the second woman he’d slept with.
The last time they were intimate, he stopped in the middle, looked into her eyes and said “I can’t do this, I prefer men,” she recalled.
“That just about tore me apart,” she said. “When he realized he was dying, that’s when he told me the whole truth.”
Gardner-Shipp cared for her husband until he died. When he lost the use of his legs, she lifted his 6-foot frame into a wheelchair and took him for walks. She bathed and fed him. She changed his adult diapers.
“Before he died he told me he infected me purposefully because he didn’t want to die by himself,” she said. “That was the cruelest thing he could have done to me.”
Still, she didn’t leave him—in large part, she said, because he threatened to tell people she had infected him if she filed for divorce or exposed him to family and friends.
“I had to go to church with him, live a lie in public,” Gardner-Shipp said. “I kept that secret because of who he was.”
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