4 Do You Get Down?: Homosex in the South

From: Sweet Tea

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do you get down? homosex in the south . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4 In black vernacular speech, to ‘‘get down’’ has typically been associated with dancing or feeling the ‘‘soul’’ of the music.∞ Contemporarily, however, the phrase has emerged within black gay communities to signify one’s same-sex desire, often posed through the question, ‘‘Do you get down?’’ This question is posed as a code between black men who have sex with other men, but who do not identify as ‘‘gay,’’ or men who have come to be called ‘‘down low brothers.’’≤ While men on the down low are typically those who come to mind when the general population imagines same-sex sex among black men in the South, many of the narrators here dispel the myth that all ‘‘homosex’’—a term I borrow from John Howard to signal ‘‘sexual activities of various sorts between two males’’—is always of a clandestine nature.≥ On the contrary, the men of Sweet Tea recount sexual activity that was blatant and in plain sight as well as sex on the down low. As one might imagine, asking these men to open up about their sexual activity was, at times, awkward, especially considering the fact that I was meeting many of them for the first time. Given the premise of the interviews, however, many men delved directly into their sexual history without my prompting , and some, like ‘‘D.C.’’ and ‘‘Larry J.,’’ took great delight in sharing stories about their sexual exploits. The most uncomfortable moments for me came when narrators told stories of sexual abuse. Not having gone through that experience myself , I could only imagine the difficultly of reliving those moments for a total stranger. And yet, at times I felt that because I was a stranger, the narrators who had been sexually abused used the interview as a cathartic moment—as a way to work through their feelings about this traumatic experience. The stories are presented in five topical sections, devoted to first-time experiences, later sexual escapades, sex at historically black colleges, sex in the military, and hiv/aids. The first four topics are those that emerged over and over again across homosex in the south : 257 the narratives with regard to the types of homosex the narrators engaged in and the places and spaces where they engaged in sex. While the last section on hiv/aids does not necessarily pertain to sex acts per se, I felt it important to include this discussion because of how hiv/aids has influenced the way the narrators think about sexuality and because of the impact the disease has had on their personal lives, as well as to account for those men who are actually living with the disease. my first time: exploration and nonconsensual sex Like gay men of various races and regions, black gay southerners engage in homosexual exploration during their pubescent years. Some of the places where this exploration occurs are also typical of boys coming into their (homo)sexuality—school bathrooms and playgrounds, abandoned buildings , and tree houses. But the narrators also name spaces for their exploration that are peculiar to the landscape, cultural institutions, and class status they inhabited: cornfields, vacant lots, church pews, and outhouses. Given how much time many gay southerners spent in the church during their youth, it is not surprising to learn that one of the more prevalent sites for homosexual exploration was, and is, the church. While my own sexual history in the church does not include homosexual exploration, I can recall my first kiss and ‘‘dry humping’’ with a young girl occurring under a church pew during summer camp. One narrator recalls having had anal sex as a young boy with multiple boys in the church. Moreover, many of these homosexual exploratory incidents happened with relatives—the proverbial ‘‘cousin’’ or sometimes even a brother. Again, class status at times played a role in bringing male relatives in close contact with one another because of having to share the same bed or even a pallet on the floor. Although most of the men suggest that they had some agency in their first homosexual encounter(s), more than a few relate stories of being forced or manipulated into having sex with an older person when they were emotionally , physically, or psychologically ill prepared. Despite this taking of innocence in their formative years, none of the narrators in question believes there is a corollary between the sexual assault or manipulation and their gayness, even though...


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