Steel River is a new Web series featured in Atlanta-based online broadcasting network Signal23TV's lineup. It's not slated to launch until Saturday, Feb. 23, but if the (NSFW) trailer is any indication, the down-low brother, or the "straight-acting" black man leading a gay double life, is at the center of this urban drama. That particular representation of the gay black man is one we've seen time and time again. Don't get me wrong: I can't wait to see this series, and the down-low formula certainly lends itself to dramatic storylines that have the potential to elucidate this real-life phenomenon, but it's still an all-too-common representation of gay black men in gay-themed cinema and TV. It's as though "down low" were synonymous with "gay and black." Not only is being on the down low problematic, but portraying all gay black men as down-low brothers stigmatizes the gay black community.
We LGBT black people do exist, and we can "act" any kind of way and still be open about our sexuality. Therefore I encourage gay black brothers to just come out! Yes, it's easier said than done; indeed, it's extremely hard. In many black, Latino/Hispanic or urban communities, being gay is frowned upon. On top of that, you are already a minority, and you might have grown up in a religious community. But if you embrace who you are, things will get better at some point. There's a difference between struggling with coming out (most gay people have those struggles) and living a lie while acting on your true desires and sexuality. Coming out as a gay black man is important because we need visibility. Not only do down-low men need to come out, but people, especially black people, need to accept that black men can be gay, too. Then maybe there won't be as many down-low brothers leading double lives.
Recently I did a blog post and a slideshow about the fact that interracial couples and couples of color are scarce in gay-themed romantic comedies, and now on top of that it seems that the main (and sometimes only) representation of gay black men in gay-themed urban cinema is the down-low brother. This is extremely problematic! On one hand, there are not enough gay men of color in gay cinema, and on the other, when gay black men are portrayed, they're either completely flamboyant (though there's nothing wrong with that) or the polar opposite: "straight-acting" and on the down low. There's no nuance. Darryl Stephens' gay black characters in Boy Culture and Noah's Arc are among a limited few that have any depth.
Yes, down-low men exist in urban communities. They can be full of lies, deceit, cheating, secrets and hurt, and black women should be vigilant against them (however, not by forcing them to wear wristbands). But we should remember that that's not the only type of black man who has sex with other men.
Let's take a look at media representations of down-low men of color that are either stereotypical, in-depth/authentic or mixed: