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Gary Younge
Why there will never be a black Brokeback Mountain

This is a tale of two love cheats and the many paths yet to be cleared on the road to Brokeback Mountain. The first is the former governor of New Jersey, James McGreevey. On August 12 2004, with his wife at his side, McGreevey confessed: "At a point in every person's life, one has to look deeply into the mirror of one's soul and decide one's unique truth in the world, not as we may want to see it or hope to see it, but as it is. And so my truth is that I am a gay American."

McGreevey, who opposed gay marriage, had allegedly given his lover a high-paying job for which he was totally unqualified. His gay partner repaid the favour by blackmailing him.

The second is Jonathan Plummer, the former husband of the novelist Terry McMillan. McMillan fell for Plummer, who was less than half her age, when she was on holiday in Jamaica. She took him home and wrote a bestselling novel about their romance called How Stella Got Her Groove Back, which became a blockbuster film. Last year, about six years after they were married, Plummer told McMillan he was gay.

McMillan tried to get him deported and, Plummer says, wrote "Fag juice, burn baby burn", on a bottle of Jamaican hot pepper sauce. Plummer, disingenuously, responded as though McMillan's rage was entirely misplaced. "She is an extremely angry woman who is homophobic and is lashing out at me because I have learned I am gay," he said. The two parted ways until their very public acrimony in the courts mellowed into a very public resolution on Oprah's couch.

McGreevey is white; Plummer is black. Although McGreevey was a public official, his transgression was generally regarded as a personal flaw. Although Plummer was a private citizen, his infidelity was regarded as part of a public health crisis. McGreevey's infidelity drew a mixture of contempt and pity; Plummer's betrayal fed a moral panic. McGreevey was being unfaithful; Plummer was on the "down-low".

The down-low refers to black men who are in committed heterosexual relationships and then slip off to have sex with other men on the sly. Like "political correctness", it is one of those media constructs that gained currency but never acquired real meaning. Articles mentioning the term "down-low" in the context of black gay life ballooned from six in 2002 to 114 in 2004 in the American mainstream media. The New York Times magazine ran a cover story on it; the hit show Law and Order based an episode on it; the Village Voice opened "The Great Down-Low Debate".

Black radio stations buzzed with it. "I'm disgusted by the whole down-low thing," Jennifer Shamwell, a 31-year-old single woman, told the Philadelphia Inquirer following news of Plummer's infidelity. "It's a horrible deceit to live a secret life as a gay man - and then get married."

She had a point. Deceit is a terrible thing. But, for all the fanfare, the "down-low debate" was never that "great". The term, as it was coined, never stood up to even the most basic scrutiny. Infidelity is nothing new. Nor is the idea that married men might have affairs with other men. McGreevey was not alone in proving that race had nothing to do with it. Mark Oaten's predicament suggests this issue will be with us for some time. Rock Hudson, Michael Barrymore, Ron Davies, Elton John - the list of married men who turned out to be gay goes on and on.

What was Brokeback Mountain but a brilliant film about two men on the down-low set to glorious music and enchanting scenery? "It's pretty clear that if they had been two black men it would have been a different reaction," says Keith Boykin, the author of Beyond the Down Low. "It would have been an evil, nefarious story about deception and disease. These are guys who blatantly cheat on their wives with other men. There's no way it would have been called a love story if they were black."

Left there, the down-low would be just one more attempt to pathologise black male sexuality - a titillating riff on the long-held myth of the untamed bestial urges that increase with the melanin count. But the down-low is different. It has gained legitimacy and traction in the African-American community because of the dramatic rise in HIV among African-American women. In 2003 the rate of Aids diagnoses for black women was 25 times that of white women, according to the US government's Centres for Disease Control; between 2001 and 2004 black women accounted for 68% of new HIV infections. HIV/Aids is now the number-one killer of black women aged between 25 and 34. The leading cause of infection, says the CDC, is heterosexual contact. Meanwhile other CDC studies reveal that a "significant number" of black men who sleep with men still "identify themselves as heterosexual".

Put it all together and it is little wonder that the black women's magazine Essence insisted that "brothers on the down-low pose a serious Aids risk to black women".

That is certainly true if they are having unprotected sex. But not otherwise. The down-low may be a component in fuelling the epidemic. But since it is neither new nor racially specific and has not obviously changed over the years it is unlikely to be the main culprit. Indeed between 2000 and 2003, the very period when the media interest was ramping up, infection rates among black women fell by 6%. Other explanations might include the high rate of incarceration of black men, who contract HIV in prison where gay sex is the only sex available and protection is rare, and the gender imbalance between black men and women in the nation at large.

Thanks to exceptionally high rates of murder (which was the biggest killer of young black men at the end of the last century), Aids/HIV (which replaced murder in the top slot at the beginning of this century) and imprisonment (at current estimates one in three black boys born in 2001 will end up in prison), viable and available black men are relatively scarce. According to the census there are 30% more black women than men in Baltimore, Chicago and Cleveland. In New York the figure is 36%; in Philadelphia 37%.

Discrimination, segregation and societal collapse have created a perfect storm for a higher turnover of sexual partners than would normally be the case, and heterosexual women feeling pressure to lower their standards and demands where men are concerned.

Beverly Guy-Sheftall, a professor of women's studies at the historically black women's college of Spelman in Atlanta, told the Los Angeles Times: "Many of the women on campus are panic-stricken because of the feeling of scarcity. I see a lot of problematic sexual decision-making among black women across class and age lines."

Which brings us back to Brokeback Mountain - a film that sensitively illustrated how even our most intimate human relationships are framed and shaped in no small part by the power, prejudices and conventions of the world around us. It is the only movie I have ever heard of where women cry, in sympathy rather than anger, at the sight of two men routinely betraying their wives, set in a place that embraces rather than stigmatises human frailty - where people cheat because the rules are stacked against them. On the down-low up high in the hills.

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