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Earnest Winborne

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The Down Low Made Me Do It!

Posted: 10/21/11 02:13 AM ET

As a black man, I've been very blessed to have an amazing career working as a producer in television. For more than three decades, I have worked for some of the biggest names on some of the most popular shows in television history. I've seen it all -- from producing for local television stations to working on The Oprah Winfrey Show and The View. I've been to every award show red carpet possible through my years with Extra, E! News and Access Hollywood, just to name a few.

And more often than not, I have been the only black male on the team. And as a double whammy, I am almost always the only openly gay black man on staff.

So, when the media first became infatuated with the idea of the "Down Low" back in the late '90s, for me the issues and topics were magnified because it hit so close to home -- not because I was in the closet hiding anything, but because as the token gay black man, my straight colleagues assumed I had all the answers.

But they weren't asking the right questions. All over the tube, from Jerry Springer to CNN and everything in between, everyone was talking about the Down Low. There were books and documentaries, newspaper commentaries and radio shows. The Down Low was everywhere. It was so prevalent that even the straight guys on my camera crews looked up from their sports pages to ask me about it.

As the only black gay rep on the staff, I got asked, "Why are so many black gay men in the closet?" "What is it about the black community that won't allow black gay men to come out?" "Is it true that these closet cases are spreading HIV/AIDS to black women?" (This is a huge myth, and according to the CDC, it's the prevalence of intravenous drug use that is to blame.)

Then, the discussion turned to my personal life. I got asked, "When did you decide to come out? Was it difficult for you?"

And that's when it hit me. I realized my story was still new to them because my experience as a gay black person is never seen in the mainstream media. I realized that even folks in the liberal entertainment industry needed to be educated. I was an anomaly; they were used to seeing gay people who looked like the characters on Will & Grace or, in today's world, like Cam and Mitchell on Modern Family.

And when they do see black gay men in the media, it's usually a discussion of the mysterious men on the Down Low. Why are these nameless, faceless people who are creeping, so to speak, getting more media attention than the black same-gender-loving (SGL) people who are open and honest and living in their truth? Where are the black SGL role models who are productive members of our communities? Where are the television segments, talk shows, newspaper articles and stories that feature people like my friends and me?

I realized that black gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are the invisible people. Like Wanda Sykes has said, "There are no black gays. We're like unicorns. We don't exist [in the media]."

Then one day when I was venting about nobody telling our stories, a friend told me, "If not you, then who?" I knew right then what my purpose was in life. I have been given all these opportunities to work with the best in the business for a reason. Then suddenly it became clear: I could help lift up those unheard voices of African-American LGBT people who were out, open and honest. I could focus on the positive role models in my community who are invisible, with a goal of No More Down Low.

One year later, we're celebrating the first anniversary of our series NoMoreDownLow.TV. For a year, our co-hosts Janora McDuffie and Kendell Hogan have been shining a spotlight on LGBT issues but from a black point of view.

Every month, we've been telling four unique stories -- whether it's high-profile people like CNN's Don Lemon or meeting Chonsie Bullock, an out and proud lesbian in Inglewood, who runs her own successful business.

And we tell the untold stories, too. Most people don't realize that black lesbians were being kicked out of the military at a higher rate than any other group. We were the only show that interviewed Cpl. Evelyn Thomas, who became one of the faces of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. We tackle HIV and AIDS like no one else, by asking the tough questions, like, why African-American heterosexual men are missing in the fight against HIV and AIDS. And to celebrate Washington, D.C. making marriage equality a reality, we featured Ivan and Wymond's wedding, with their two adorable boys.

When Kobe Bryant mouthed the "F-word" from the sidelines during a basketball game, we went to black members of the Los Angeles Lambda Basketball League and got their reaction.

We interviewed Colin Powell, who addressed the issue of homophobia in the African Diaspora after the death of Ugandan gay activist David Kato. In that same episode, our interview with "Cosby mom" Phylicia Rashad told us that "mothers need to advocate for the rights of gay babies."

We talked about transgender discrimination and showcased rarely seen photographs of black same-gender-loving men from as early as the Civil War period, and we tackled homophobia in hip-hop.

And along the way, we've become activists in our own right, like the segment that we did on our female co-host, Janora McDuffie, who participated in the AIDS Lifecycle bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

And much to my surprise, I, too, have become an activist. Recently, I was even invited to the White House and Capitol Hill along with more than 100 other black LGBT activists to lobby members of the Congressional Black Caucus during the National Black Justice Coalition's Out on the Hill Summit. We were the only camera crew documenting this historical event.

Yes, the Down Low may have been a media catchphrase, but it compelled one black gay man to turn that negative into a positive spotlight on SGL people who openly live far away from the shadows of their communities.

We've been told more than once that we're too niche. I say that "too niche" is going to help more black same-gender-loving people come out and experience an authentic life. "Too niche" is going to save the life of a questioning gay or transgender teenager whose religious parents are not ready to accept him. So, we'll embrace "too niche" and keep telling our stories until there is No More Down Low.

WATCH the latest episode of No More Down Low: