Friday, August 7, 2009
A "Down Low" Detective Gives His Perspective
Over the years, much has been written, said, and debated about the "down low", men who are outwardly straight, but secretly have sex with other men. Widely reported as a destructive double-life deception, the "down low phenomenon has gained plenty of currency in "mainstream" straight media as a hidden cause of HIV/AIDS, a despicable, cowardly way to live one's life, and the subject of numerous books, such as those written by J.L. King and news commentator Keith Boykin. These are "expose"-type books that do try to shed some light, albeit critically, on the "down low" phenomenon.
Well, while returning from a meeting today, I ran into someone I know, who has been on the "down low" for many years now. We had a fascinating discussion about this as he drove me back home from Manhattan, and it certainly got me thinking about the whole evolution of the "down low" subculture amongst gay and/or bisexual men. A little background on my friend should begin to shed some light on the reasons why he insists--with some real justification, I might add--that the "down low" is a monster created by society, and that prudence, not cowardice, keeps him (and countless others like him) in the closet. My friend "Deion" is a man of color in his late thirties, married, three kids, house on Long Island, and a detective specialist with the NYPD. He was raised right here in Queens, in a middle-class home by a well-educated, professional couple. Discovering his attraction to other men during his high school years, he says he needed absolutely no prompting in deciding to stay in the closet. His lifelong ambition was to become a member of the NYPD's Emergency Services Unit (ESU), and he understood clearly that the letters "G-A-Y" and "E-S-U" did not, and probably never would, go together.
"Deion" stayed on the "down low" all through college and into the Police academy. Following the strict, homophobic culture of New York's Finest, "Deion" maintained a very straight "public" appearance. He was keenly aware of the professional and societal pressures bearing on him to conform to accepted "norms of sexual orientation", on his quest to win a coveted detective's gold shield. He professed to a life that would meet with the approval of his parents, siblings, and NYPD colleagues and supervisors. A cop's life is closely watched, especially when the officer is known to be seeking advancement to higher levels within the department, and homosexuality is not to be tolerated. Openly gay cops have been investigated, brought up on false charges, and fired by the department, as gay former policeman Jai Aiken discovered not too long ago.
To succeed in this homophobic environment, "Deion" made a veru conscious decision to try to balance his professional life with the need to satsfy his attraction to other men. This extended to marrying and fathering children, whom he admittedly loves, but also confesses they help to cement his image as a "normal, straight husband and father". He is absolutely convinced that this facade helped him to eventually get promoted to detective. In the NYPD, there are two types of detectives. Detective Investigators are exactly what the name implies; they go out and do the traditional gumshoe work, like Briscoe and Green in Law & Order. Then there are Detective Specialists, like "Deion", who possess some critical, special, or unique skill that makes them suitable for one of the many specialized units of the NYPD. The overarching fact, is that regardless of whether you're an investigator or a specialist, the promotion to detective rank is an appointment. Unlike the management careeer ladder, in which you can earn higher rank and pay by taking a series of civil-service exams, to become a world-famous New York City Detective, you must be appointed by the Police Commisioner. As my friend notes with irony, "you can have questionable shootings in your jacket, and get by, but being gay will cause you problems." Of course, these reflect themselves as "substandard performance", rather than "gay cop".
Hence, the decision "Deion" made to stay on the "down low". While there is no shortage of people--gay, straight, and bi--who might say that "Deion" is little more than a coward living a lie, I am of the opinion that his choice is--wait for it--prudent. Now, before you start stuffing my comments with flame attacks, think about it: Given the overwhelming evidence that "Deion's" chosen profession was rife with homophobia, and that his life outside the NYPD would have been equally precarious as an out, gay, man of color, his reasoning seems understandable to me. "But what of his wife, his kids," people will point out, "Don't they deserve better than to live with someone whose life with them is a sham?" Yes, they do, but consider: the "down-low", again, is a monster we as a society created, by teaching the "wrongness" of homosexuaity to people starting at an early age. We teach it at home, in our schools, most definitely in our churches, and at our places of business. We hammer into everyone's head that gays and lesbians are "socially unacceptable", but yet we complain when someone like "Deion" copes with this onslaught of hatred by hiding what he really is?
If we'd embraced understanding and realized that gays and lesbians are contributing members of our society who deserve the respect and value every person should be accorded, and were finally awarded fundamental human rights like marriage, then maybe the "Deions" of this world could wear their gold shields and their sexuality prouldly. Let the debate begin!