2005_06_kboykin.jpgWhen we first heard about the “down low” we weren’t really sure what to make of it. It was loosely defined as this new phenomenon where heterosexual married black men are engaging in homosexual sex, contracting AIDS and bringing it back to their black wives. We picked up Keith Boykin’s book, Beyond the Down Low, and things became much clearer. We decided we needed to interview Keith, and fortunately for us he agreed (little did we know, Keith was sick of talking about “down low,” but he granted us the interview anyway).

In addition to being an expert on the down low, Keith’s authored two other books, was a contestant on the controversial reality TV show American Candidate, has worked on several political campaigns (including Clinton’s run for the White House) and is a leading commentator on race and sexuality.

Age: 39
Occupation: Author
Place of birth: St. Louis, MO
Current residence: New York City
Length of time in New York: 4 years
Online guilty pleasure: Wrestling sites

Why did you decide to write a book about the “down low?"
I didn’t really want to. I was kind of forced to do so because I got so tired of hearing all the nonsense and hysteria about the “down low.” So much of it seemed transparently false, so I felt I had to do something to step in and correct the record.

2005_06_btdownlow.jpgWhat was your hypothesis going in?
My hypothesis was that the “down low” was not new, it was not just a black thing and it was not the cause of the AIDS epidemic in the black community. Those all seemed liked fairly obvious statements to me, but that was not how the media had portrayed the story in the previous year. After I did the investigative work, I found my hypothesis to be true.

Basically the entire “down low” craze was given credibility because J.L. King stood up as its “poster boy.” The guy’s written two books on the subject, has appeared on Oprah and you devoted a chapter in your book to him. Should this man just be taken out and shot for what he’s done?
I have to hand it to him for being able to manipulate the media so skillfully for at least a year. The guy’s a hustler and he’s an uninformed hustler at that. Every time he speaks I just cringe.

I read an article in the Chicago Sun Times last week called “Sunday Lunch with J.L. King,” and he’s still saying a lot of crazy things that I would think he would have learned over the year don’t make any sense. He’s saying he doesn’t identify with the black gay culture because he doesn’t want to be out at the gay clubs “kicking and screaming” all the time. And I’m thinking, “You’re an idiot.” I mean, I’m black and I’m gay and I'm not out at the clubs “kicking and screaming” all the time. He has this whole sort of reductionist, absurd argument about what it means to be black and gay and he trivializes the diversity within the community with his generalizations. It’s almost funny, but it’s really just sad. I put him along the lines of…I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Shahrazad Ali…

You mention her in your book.
Well, she wrote a book back in the early nineties. I put him along the lines of her and Vanilla Ice and all these other people who come along and get their 15 minutes of fame doing really stupid things and then you forget about them eventually. I’m convinced that once this whole “down low” phenomenon dies out, people will forget about J.L. King, or if they remember him, he will be remembered as a guy who trivialized the AIDS epidemic. I’m not sure he really cares, but I think the effects on the black community have been devastating.

How so?
I was at a book signing in Atlanta in late February and a black woman in the audience told me that she now assumes that all black men are gay until proven straight. This is a straight black woman saying this to me. I thought, wow, this is amazing how this whole phenomenon has just been blown out of proportion. Even if you accept the 10% theory that Kinsey put forward decades ago, that still means 90% of men, even in the African-American community, are likely not to be gay or bisexual.

Would you say the black community is more hostile than other groups towards homosexuality?
That’s a really tough question. In my first book, One more River to Cross (1996), I wrote that homophobia is no worse or no better in the black community than in any other community. But I swear, the last couple of years have forced me to challenge that - the whole gay marriage debacle, the “down low” story and all these other things going on. I still think basically my original theory was true, but I have to give new context to it I guess.

The black community historically has been politically progressive but socially conservative. So from a political perspective on civil rights issues, black people I think do get it with regard to gay and lesbian civil rights protection. From the morality perspective and with respect to homosexuality, we are probably way behind - we don’t get it.

Getting back to J.L. King for a moment, have you ever met him?
I have never met him face-to-face; I’ve only spoken to him on the phone and by email.

When was that? How did it go?
The last time I spoke to him by email, or in any way, was in December of last year. There was a preview of my book that appeared in December in the gay newspaper in Atlanta, The Southern Voice. I was obviously very critical of him, and they contacted him to get his response. At that point, he basically criticized me but didn’t deny anything I said in the book.

Shortly after the article appeared he wrote me an email. As I recall the subject line of the email was “It’s not right.” And then as I opened the message it said, “It’s not right what you are doing to me. You’re going around the country spreading vicious rumors, untruths and lies about me and there is something wrong with that. We all need to come together and get along. I’m just trying to provide a service to the community.” At the end of his email he said he was going to pray for me because obviously there was anger in my heart. My tendency is to respond to every email I get. When I read that I said this doesn’t even merit a response, so I never replied and I haven’t heard from him since.

Didn’t J.L. King just come out with a new book?
He does have a new book out. It did not go on the New York Times best-seller list and it’s been out for more than a month. It is not doing very well on Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble or any listings. And it hasn’t been reviewed anywhere for that matter. As far as I can tell, his new book is a big flop.

The funny thing about it, in that same email he sent to me last December, he threatened me by saying that people, black women in particular, were going to boycott my book because I was attacking him. He also pointed out that there were so many books coming out in 2005 about the “down low” that my book was just going to get lost in all the others.

But it turns out that my book has been the most successful of all the new books on the “down low,” it’s a New York Times Best-Seller.

Now the “down low” might not be right, but isn’t anything that gets a dialogue going about AIDS in the black community a good thing?
I go back and forth on this one. At times I’ve thought maybe the “down low” discussion is somewhat useful if it gets us talking about AIDS, but after doing this discussion for the past 5 months, I’m convinced it’s a real distraction. It actually prevents us from talking about it because it sends the message that the “down low” is the only major concern with AIDS in the black community and as long as you aren’t involved with someone who is on the “down low,” you can tune out all the other AIDS and safe sex messages.

This whole situation can be very frustrating. I’ve spoken to reporters who really don’t seem to get it, which troubles me even more.

Any examples?
Back on February 7 the Washington Post reported a story on the front page, “HIV/AIDS Rates Soar Among Black Women.” The story talked about the “down low” as a cause of the AIDS epidemic in the black community.

I wrote to the reporter and I told him the story, headline and statistics quoted were inaccurate. The headline said that AIDS rates were soaring but the truth was HIV/AIDS rates had actually declined 6% in the previous four years among black women. I gave him a link to the CDC website with the accurate statistics and the name of the communications director at the CDC, Carlie Stanton.

What did the reporter do after that?
He wrote back to me by email and the first line was “For crying out loud Keith." He then went on to say, “it doesn't really matter whether the AIDS rates have increased or decreased or flat lined, the point is there is a problem here and I am trying to minimize the problem with my statistics.” Ahh…I just felt like, oh my God what will it take to get people to know the truth here.

How else has the media disappointed you?
I just wish that someone in the press had written an investigative piece about J.L. King and his views. I tried to do some of that in my book.

How is it that this guy was involved in a relationship 25 years ago and that’s relevant to the HIV/AIDS epidemic today. At the time he was involved, there was no AIDS epidemic. And, how is it that he writes this book about the “down low” with no information that nobody challenges. Then his ex-wife writes the other side, using the same author. I mean neither one of them wrote their books, it’s the same person, Karen Hunter, who wrote both sides. It seems like such an obvious obvious sham.

What about Oprah?
I’m going to give her a pass on this. As long as she doesn’t do anything else on it, I’m not going to be critical. It can be a hard story to figure out. If she does another story on the “down low” and doesn’t present both sides, it would be a huge mistake.

In your book you also talk about an article that Andrew Sullivan wrote sort of announcing the end of the AIDS epidemic…
Andrew Sullivan used to be one of my heroes. When I was in law school I invited him to come to Harvard to give a speech and I think at that time he was still an editor at the New Republic. Even though he was a conservative, I applauded what he was doing. He was willing to speak up as an iconoclast, and I appreciated that.

Over the years, I have found that I disagree with him a lot more than I agree with him. What really caused me to part ways with Andrew is just the whole notion of the way he treated the AIDS epidemic and his New York Times Magazine piece in 1996. I think the title of the article was “When Plagues End” or something like that. I remember reading that back then and was like wow, I have friends that are still dying from this and here’s this guy who obviously has access to wealth and resources, who sees a whole different side. I think he’s sending the message that will encourage people not to pay attention. I don’t blame him for doing that, the media wanted a new story and he offered the new story to them.

You must be pretty skeptical of the media after all this…
I’ve always been. I’ve worked with the media all my life. When I was in college I was editor of my college newspaper. My first job out of college was working with the media on the Dukakis campaign. When I was in law school I was a media spokesperson for an organization on campus. Then when I was in the White House, I worked as a spokesperson for the White House. So, I’ve worked with the media all my life. I even taught courses on media when I was in Washington D.C. at American University. I have always had sort of a healthy respect and skepticism for the media.

So where are you now with regards to the “down low?" Are you still doing publicity for the book?
This whole experience has really tired me out, where I really don’t want to do the “down low” thing anymore. I had a tour planned from January to May, which I’ve basically done, and then I was gonna do some extended events in June, July and August, and I just decided recently that I’m not going to do those, unless something changes.

Even though I feel there is a message that needs to be communicated, I run the risk of perpetuating a story that I’ve tried to kill.

2005_06_candkboykin.jpgWell, this seems like a good segue to talk about some of the other things you’ve done. You were on the Showtime reality TV show the “American Candidate.” Why did you decide to do that?
If you’d asked me two years if I would ever do a reality show I would have immediately said no, what would be the point? But when Showtime approached me in May 2004 and asked if I’d be interested in auditioning for a political reality show, I thought there might be some potential in it. I spoke to my partner and he was willing to support me.

I think what was important to me about doing it was to show a different image of someone who’s black and gay. To show that people that are gay don’t only care about gay issues and that people who are black don’t only care about black issues. The platform I had in the campaign was about jobs, healthcare, education and home ownership. Talking about issues that pertain to most Americans, not solely about issues of race and sexuality. I also think it’s important for people to see couples. I was on the show with my partner who is also a black gay man and that’s something you almost never see on television.

You were voted off towards the end of the show, but asked back to be the VP running mate of Malia Lazu. However in the end, Malia lost to Park Gillespie. Any theories on why he ended up winning?
Park is a conservative southern Republican evangelical and the current president is a conservative southern Republican evangelical. I think the politics of the show somehow aligned with the politics of the country at this particular time, which really surprised me because Showtime is a fairly liberal network. I mean it’s the network that gave us Queer as Folk, The L Word and Soul Food, so I never would have expected that an openly anti-gay, conservative, anti-abortion, Republican could win a contest on Showtime. But it happened.

Was there anything during the run of the show that clued you in that he might win?
I think there was telling moment toward the end of the show, actually the episode where I got booted off, where they asked viewers as the show was playing to call in or text in the response to the question: do you think America is ready for a black president? 50% said yes, which is not a lot and it’s definitely not a lot considering it’s Showtime.

Hmm…think Showtime will change their programming as a result?
I’m sure the conservatives can’t be watching Queer as Folk.

The American Candidate wasn’t your first experience working on a campaign. You worked on Dukakis’ unsuccessful run for the presidency. Where do you think his campaign went wrong?
Oh god, I don’t know where to begin. Well, my problem with the campaign was that I was too intimately involved to have any sense of perspective at the time. My job was to travel with the candidate on the campaign plane. I was there during some of the worst moments. But at the time, I don’t think I fully appreciated how bad those moments were.

What moments were you there for?
I was there when Dukakis put on the helmet and rode around in the tank at the tank factory in Michigan. When I saw it live I thought it was an interesting cool event. It didn’t occur to me how silly he looked on camera.

I remember there was another incident when Dukakis went bowling and he bowled once and it was a decent bowl. He was supposed to do it just once to show he could. The next time he did it he bowled a gutter ball. Well, of course the gutter ball is what ends up on television and they used that as a reflection of what was going on with the campaign.

You also worked on Clinton’s campaign, which was successful…
His campaign was completely different for me because I worked on Dukakis’ campaign from the beginning. I signed up in June 1987 and I worked until November 1988, so I worked before the primary, I went to Iowa, New Hampshire - I was there from the beginning to the end. The Clinton campaign on the other hand, I signed up after I graduated from law school in June 1992, so I was only there for the summer before the general election campaign. I missed the whole scandal with Jennifer Flowers. By the time I signed on, he was already the nominee.

The one thing I do remember is waiting for the other shoe to drop. A lot of people don’t remember this but Dukakis actually went up in the polls after the convention. Dukakis was 17 points ahead, and by the end of August the lead had completely evaporated. After Labor Day he trailed in the polls and that continued for the rest of the election cycle.

Clinton on the other hand, he was ahead in the polls. I don’t think there was ever a time that I worked on the campaign that we didn’t think he was gonna win.

But, you were still sort of pessimistic?
I started working in politics back in 1982 and I had been through a number of failed campaigns.. For my first campaign I worked for a liberal democrat named George Sheldon who was running for Congress and he lost. I worked for Walter Mondale in ’84 and he lost. I worked for Julian Bond in ’86, he was running for Congress and he lost. I worked for Dukakis in ’88 and he lost. In ’89 I worked for the license collector candidate in St. Louis, Missouri and she lost. By the time I got to ’92, I never expected that anyone I worked for would ever win. I was just doing it because I thought it was the right thing to do, not because I expected them to win.

What’s next for you?
I’m working on another book. I’m guest hosting a radio show on Sirius Satellite Radio. And, I’m working on developing a television show. I feel like I’m branching off into a lot of different areas and not one of them has to do with the “down low.”

Photo credit: Duane Cramer