Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Liberal Studies


James Wilson

Subject Categories

African American Studies | Anthropology | Cultural History | Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | Gender and Sexuality | Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies | Multicultural Psychology | Other Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | Quantitative, Qualitative, Comparative, and Historical Methodologies | Race and Ethnicity | Social and Cultural Anthropology | Social History | Sociology | United States History | Women's Studies


down low, ethnography, race, sexuality, gender


In a so-called post-racial America, a new gay identity has flourished and come into the limelight. However, in recent years, researchers have concluded that not all men who have sex with other men (MSM) self-identify as gay, most noticeably a large population of Black men. It is possible that a tainted history of Black enslavement in this country that is inextricably linked with ideas of space, surveillance, subversion, and survival inform a Black male’s self-identification as being “on the down low” (DL). This begs the question: What does mainstream society view as gay-ness and how is the DL constructed differently? In addition to examining the issue of race, notions such as privilege, gender, and masculinity must be accounted for in order to delineate between a contemporary gay identity and being on the DL. First, I summarize the history of the DL from slavery to its current iteration. Next, I review the existing literature on the DL to understand how the mainstream media narrative has placed blame on Black MSM bodies, mostly for the spread of HIV transmission within the community. The media has mostly recycled biased tropes that falsely represent what the DL might actually signify for the Black MSM. In addition, I explore how the DL could be better evaluated taking into account the legitimate fields of race, gender, and sexuality. Most importantly, I will address the questions of the DL as a racialized construct and how the DL differs from living openly as a gay man in an increasingly sexually tolerant society. Can we subsume the DL into a queer identity? To answer these questions, I examine how Black DL men represent themselves using social media hook-up applications such as Grindr and Jack’d as well as the popular online community forum Craigslist. All of these platforms which facilitate sexual activity between men, particularly men on the DL, represent the core element of the DL lifestyle by relegating sex with men to a secret or private sphere. Finally, I hope to contribute to the existing research by offering actual interviews with self-identified Black men on the DL who can provide invaluable first-hand accounts of the DL lifestyle. Using these case studies to address these questions, I unpack the intricacies of living on the DL including its manifestation as an authentic generative space for Black MSM to express themselves sexually in a still racialized country.