Downlow Mountain? De/stigmatizing Bisexuality through Pitying and Pejorative Discourses in Media

Article excerpt

Imagine for a moment a movie about two black steelworkers in Chicago's south-side. These men argue that they "ain't queer" in spite of the fact that they get together a couple of times a year to have sex with each other. When they have sex, alcohol is often involved; condoms never are. Neither ever uses the word "love" to describe what they're feeling. Both are married, have children, and enjoy all of the privileges of heterosexuality (i.e., status, security, progeny). They wear masculinity like a heavy cloak: taking jobs, driving trucks, and wearing clothes that mark them incontrovertibly as men's men. They consider the ramifications of expressing their attractions openly and decide that "it's nobody's business but ours."

If that movie had come out in 2001 when no less than 20 news outlets and magazines were running stories about the so-called "down-low" phenomena or three years later when Oprah Winfrey was exposing "this sexual underground," these two characters would be villainized as examples of a worrisome trend men living on the down-low--which was being described as the root cause of the spread of HIV-AIDS in the black community. Their sexual behavior would be pathologized, they would be called dishonest and delusional, and their decisions to hide their behavior would be perceived by some gay activists as a dangerous cop-out. Newspaper and magazine articles almost unanimously excoriated black bisexual men as both deceptive (Harris, 2004) and dangerous (Johnson, 2005). This movie about black bisexual men would likely have received the same kind of pejorative treatment that black bisexuals themselves received in most discourse following the Los Angeles Times' "discovery" of them (Stewart & Bernstein, 2001).

But make the characters white cowboys, plant them in 1960s Wyoming, and their secret lives become something to be pitied. Stephen Holden's (2005) review of Brokeback Mountain is representative of how the media described the main characters' relationship: "Brokeback Mountain is ultimately not about sex but about love ... love stumbled into, love thwarted, love held sorrowfully in the heart" (p. E1.1). Of 140 articles written about this movie in mainstream newspapers, none referred to the Jack and Ennis characters as bisexuals, let alone as men living on the down-low. Without exception, reviewers and culture pundits saw it as a movie about "two gay cowboys" in spite of the fact that both characters state, categorically, that they're not gay and appear quite capable of carrying on enthusiastic physical relationships with their wives. Instead of being villainized for their dishonesty, Jack and Ennis are lionized as men who stalwartly kept their extramarital, homosexual relationship alive in spite of cultural injunctions against such behavior. Even Jack's cruising Mexican back alleys for anonymous sex and his reciprocated flirtations with the also-married Randall Malone are ignored in what amounts to a kind of media whitewashing of Jack's "down-low" behaviors. Because the bisexuality of these characters is practically ignored by the media, no flurry of news articles or magazine examinations of the "white bisexual" phenomenon followed the movie's premiere. Instead the movie served as a catalyst for discussions about societal pressures that cause homosexual men to remain in the closet, a set of discussions that had none of the pejorative tone that followed society's introduction to black bisexuality.

This tendency in the media to portray black bisexuals as duplicitous heterosexuals while portraying white bisexuals as victimized homosexuals does not end in the print media. Oprah Winfrey did two shows less than a year apart, one on black men (April, 2004) and a second one dealing with white men (October, 2004) who have sexual relationships with both genders. Each show was initiated by a book's publication--Carol Grever's (2001) My Husband is Gay and J.L. King's (2004) On the Down Low--but the shows seemed timed to coincide with the media's focus on the issues raised by the "down-low" articles and the film Brokeback Mountain (Ossana, Schamus, & Lee, 2005). …