Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Lee Daniels Talks About the 'Down Low' and Gets So Much Wrong

Lee Daniels, the director of Precious and the new release The Butler, recently sat down with Larry King to talk about HIV/AIDS and homophobia.  His commentary, while including an honest revelation about himself regarding the homophobia he has faced, is laced with deeply internalized homophobia, racism and classism.

Two minutes is not a lot of time but in that short span, director Lee Daniels managed to get so much wrong in his interview that it's shocking.  I am often quite resistant to questioning the experiences, or the views of marginalized people with whom I don't share a marginalization with, simply because doing so can be extremely problematic.  The moment you have privilege in an area, you must question whether your resistance to what is being said is really about an unwillingness to challenge your own privilege. No matter how committed to social justice the individual is, none of us has reached the point where we stop tripping over our privilege.

I paused for a moment, as I listened to Daniels talk about the supposed down low phenomenon and his association with a grouping of Black women and children with welfare. Please take a moment to watch the video or read the transcript.

transcipt below the fold

Larry King: When did you know you were gay?
Lee Daniels: When did I know that I was gay? I was five.
Larry King: Five?
Lee Daniels: Five and I knew that something wasn't right or that I wasn't right in comparison to my  brothers. Because my dad was playing cards one Sunday with his cop friends and I put on my mother's red pumps and walked down the stairs. He went, "what's going on? What's happening?"
Larry King: My life is over
Lee Daniels: Oh my God and then I got beat.
Larry King: Really?
Lee Daniels: He beat me severely for it. Yeah, he beat me really bad but that didn't stop me because the following Sunday I put on her blue high heel shoes and walked down the stairs; this time with her purse.
Larry King: In an interview a year ago you said that gay people are third class citizens.
Lee Daniels: I meant that to.
Larry King: Has that changed?
Lee Daniels: I think that they're prejudiced upon even from the African-Americans. I think that the reason that we have AIDS....I did a movie called Precious and uh
Larry King: Naturally
Lee Daniels: And I what I have learned - what I expected - When I was doing the research for Precious, I walked into the AIDS - Gay Men's Health Crises center in NYC expecting to see studying AIDS/HIV and I expected to see a room full of gay men but well there were nothing but women who were there. And the reason why women are there (black women with kids) I thought I had walked into the welfare office but uh they service Black women with AIDS. Why? Because Black men can't come out. Why? Because it's simply that you can't do it. Your family says it, your church says it, your teachers say it, your parents say it, your friends say it, your work says it,  so you're living on this DL thing and you're infecting Black women. And so it is killing us and I think that the Black culture  and the Hispanic culture have a thing about this.
Larry King: that's true

Let me state for the record that as a straight Black woman, I obviously have no idea what it is to be a gay Black man and while I share race as a marginalization with Daniels, our experiences and frame of reference in terms of sexuality could not be more different.  That said, I have a problem with his statement that the down low is killing us (and by us I mean Black people).  The closet is a horrible, horrible thing but the notion that gay Black men are infecting Black women with HIV/AIDS is highly problematic in my view. HIV/AIDS is an epidemic within the Black community and it is hitting Black women particularly hard. Black women overwhelming tend to have sex with Black men and are far less likely to date, let alone marry inter-racially.  There is a stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS testing, which unfortunately leads people to believe that if they don't feel ill that they are fine.  Not knowing if you are positive means that you are free to engage in high risk behaviour, potentially exposing others unwittingly (and irresponsibly in my view) to HIV/AIDS. There is also the issue of bad sex education, in which condoms are not stressed, or outright ignored.  Many don't realise that if you are having oral, anal or vaginal sex, that a condom is absolutely necessary each and every single time. The problem is that people are not using condoms and as far as I am aware, straight men are more than capable of straying outside of their monogamous relationships and bringing home an STD. There is also the issue of sharing needles for those who are addicted to drugs and the limited number of exchanges for clean needles. It's not the downlow that is responsible for the alarming HIV/AIDS numbers in the Black community but ignorance, addiction and poverty.

I was absolutely disturbed to see Lee Daniels so publicly spread this lie about the downlow.  HIV/AIDS is not a gay disease.  The virus cannot distinguish between a straight person and a gay person. Safe, healthful, sexual choices, good sex eduction, free condoms and needle exchanges are the greatest weapons we have for fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS, not attacking and stigmatizing our same gender loving brothers of colour.  To me, his statement read more like someone who has bought into the ridiculous narrative that is being spread by straight culture, than a serious commentary on how to stem the rising number of HIV/AIDS infection.  The internalization of the oppressors truth is so insidious because it means we become a party to our oppression, believing the worst about ourselves and perpetuating harmful stereotypes that can do us nothing but harm.

Lee Daniels also spoke about walking into a men's health center and believing that he was in the welfare office. Black women and children are disproportionately poor and this has everything to do with insitutionalized racism and our warped capitalist system.  There are however more White people on welfare than Black people and this is something that consistently gets over looked to promote the idea of the Black welfare queen.  It is true that in terms of percentage of population, Black women and children are over represented on welfare but the fixation on this is simply an ongoing project by White supremacy to cast Black women as licentious breeders. That his immediate assumption was that he was in a welfare office speaks loudly about how Daniels looks at class, race and gender. In fact, what he did was shame these women for attempting to get the healthcare treatment that they so desperately needed. If there were more services which specifically targeted Black women and children, these women would not have been at the center.  Their presence there should be lauded because it shows maturity and responsibility.

 Homophobia is a global problem and no one race of people is more or less homophobic than the other.  Even one incidence of homophobia is too much and to spend time debating about who is less or more homophobic distracts from the mission of bringing an end to all homophobia.  Homophobia isn't an issue because Black people supposedly exist to oppress same gender loving people. It's an issue because of heterosexism and the fact that we teach children from birth that the only acceptable sexuality is heterosexual.  Even if we were to accept the false notion that the homophobia in the Black community is worse than any other, how do we explain the fact that Black people do not as a group hold enough institutional power to make and enforce laws which specifically target the gay community?  Daniels arguments again seem to me to be yet another instance of internalized racism. Growing up as a young gay Black male, Daniels would have most certainly experienced homophobia within the Black community but it is a significant leap to then suggest that his lived experience correlates to higher instances of homophobia within the Black community than any other racial group.To be clear, Daniels must have faced great difficulty coming out but at least to some degree, his experiences must mirror the experiences of other gay men across the world. Coming is difficult no matter what race you are because we live in a heterosexist world.

Lee Daniels is not representative of all same gender loving men of colour but it is still disappointing to see him espouse views which are clearly harmful, not only to himself as a gay Black man, but to the entire Black community.  The Black community is under great peril with unemployment figures in the double digits, high rates of poverty, a school to jail pipeline, addiction and HIV/AIDS.  These are serious issues which require thoughtful conversation and solid solutions, not the ramblings of a man who has internalized such much hatred that he cannot point to the north star.  Freedom and equality will not be achieved by repeating and internalizing the oppressors lies but by having the courage and intelligence to learn the truth and then act upon it.

Editors Note: this post has been edited for clarity.