Tampa — For some like USF junior Sean Drees, the true root of the common phrase “the down-low” has been kept on the down-low itself.
“Everyone knows what it means,” Drees said. “It’s just what you say when you don’t want people finding something. It basically means, ‘Keep this between us.’”
The phrase actually originated from a subculture of men who identify themselves as heterosexuals yet lead secret double-lives, sometimes entering into marriage while continuing homosexual sex-acts unbeknownst to their partners. Men who engage in this behavior are said to be on “the down-low.”
According to a study by John Barnshaw, a sociologist at the University of South Florida, the practice of “down-low” homosexuality is significantly higher within the African-American community.
“The homosexual identity is highly stigmatized in black culture,” Barnshaw said. “The fear of ostracism, coupled with habitual MSM (men who have sex with men) behavior stemming from incarcertion, leads many black men to hide their homosexuality.”
In his study, Barnshaw also emphasizes the risks posed to unknowing women as a result of their partner’s “down-low” homosexual acts. He said men on the “down-low” are often in relationships with women who don’t believe they are at risk for STD’s such as HIV. Consequently, they are much less likely to use protective measures during intercourse.
“People claim up and down that their partner could never possibly be gay,” Barnshaw said. ” But it’s necessary to get tested.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), MSM represent only 2 percent of the population, yet accounted for more than half of all HIV infections in the U.S. in 2009.
As of 2010, Florida had 90,909 people living with HIV — the second highest state population behind New York. There were also 23.7 new cases diagnosed per 100,000 people in the state, with 85 percent of those cases being diagnosed in major metropolitan areas such as Tampa.
Jennifer Friedman’s office is a disaster.
Projects from past students teeter atop shelves, piled high and overlooking a floor covered with loose papers.
In her green office chair, she patiently waits. Her graying blond hair falls down onto a faded, oversized red T-shirt that she wears with jeans and a pair of hiking boots.
A wrap-around desk hugs the back corner of the room, leaving an open common area in the middle of her office, perfect for conversation.
Her blue-gray eyes seem alive with excitement as she speaks to a young man seeking ideas for the first meeting of a campus social problems club.
“We want them to come back,” she says. “We’ve got to educate the masses about what’s really going on in the world.”
It’s clear where Friedman’s priorities lie.
“My greatest fear is the world my two children are going to inherit. We’re worrying about debt when the truth is, we may not have an earth to live on in 70 years,” she says.
At 51, Friedman is clearly a product of the 70s. The effect that the era has had on her ideals is evident. Born into a South Florida family that would have rather seen her attend law school, she maintains that her decision to go for a doctorate in sociology was the right one.
“I educate others, I research, and I get paid to learn in the process,” she says. “I could be a full professor and get paid more, but being happy is what matters. I just want contentment.”
Between teaching, raising a family and doing research, Friedman barely has time for her biggest project: Millie.
Millie is a recovering heroin addict whom Friedman studied for 10 years as she battled addiction, spousal abuse and the loss of two children.
“This is why I do what I do,” Friedman says. “This world is so quick to write her off as just a drug addict, but she is so much more. She’s smart in her own way. The world just doesn’t see it.”
Friedman worries a lot.
She worries about her children and about the job her husband just lost. She worries about where Millie is now. She worries about the future of this planet and the shape it will be in for generations to come.
For now, however, it’s 2 p.m. Dr. Jennifer Friedman’s only worry is getting to her 11-year-old daughter’s parent-teacher conference on time.
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