Sexual Discretion: Black Masculinity and the Politics of Passing

Sexual Discretion: Black Masculinity and the Politics of Passing

by Jeffrey Q. McCune, Jr.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226096674
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/07/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Jeffrey Q. McCune, Jr. is associate professor in the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program and the Department of Performing Arts at Washington University in St. Louis.

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Sexual Discretion

Black Masculinity and the Politics of Passing



Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-09667-4


Introduction: Discrete/Discreet Acts, Goin' Down Low

The contemporary lesbian and gay movement since Stonewall has made living one's life as an openly gay or lesbian person a criterion of "liberation."

—Mark Blasius, "An Ethos of Lesbian and Gay Experience"

Driving the mechanism of these performed identities is a need to blend in, not to be noticed. The power of the "unseen" community lies in its ability to cohere outside the system of observation which seeks to patrol it.

—Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance

... a lot of black folks don't come out ... doesn't mean they are closeted, but that they wish not to utilize terms that have too many distant associations, intentions, and connotations.

—Tim'm West

In 2005 controversial and creative R & B superstar R. Kelly introduced to the world Trapped in the Closet, an innovative twelve-part music video epic—dramatized through the unraveling of social and sexual secrets, while also suggesting their centrality within everyday black life. In a sense, Kelly opened the closet narrative, filling it with cultural specificity and multiple possibilities. The series begins with Sylvester—taken from Kelly's middle name and played by Kelly—literally in a closet. From this vantage point, Sylvester narrates how what was supposed to be a one-night sexual event turned into a morning after. In Chapter 1, Sylvester explains how he woke up, lying in the bed of a woman (Cathy) after he fell asleep and "lost track of time." In a rush to get to his "wife at home," he attempts to leave but discovers that Cathy's husband, Rufus, "is coming up the stairs." To avoid conflict or a confrontation, Sylvester first ridiculously considers exiting by way of a window, but then decides to hide inside of a closet.

As Cathy welcomes her husband home with an Oscar-worthy performance, they begin erotic play, as Sylvester waits in the closet. Each chapter in the series follows the same plot formula, unfolding the angst and anxiety of a particular clandestine relationship, while the uncovering of secret acts becomes the rising tension that leads to a cliff-hanging close. One of the most fascinating features of this series is the construction of each filmic music video: dramatic plots (absent a chorus), stylized employment of half-sung/ half-spoken lyrics, and the God-like omniscient narrator that Kelly employs and embodies. Indeed, this ability to conjoin these often disconnected components is a masterful artistic accomplishment, as well as a site of pop-cultural fascination and controversy. The cliff-hanging tension—in this particular chapter, the potential of Sylvester being discovered in the closet—drives the narrative in each episode. As Cathy and Rufus are entangled in heated passion, Sylvester's phone rings. Here the plot thickens, as Rufus searches all over the house for the mysterious guest. Finally, in exhaustion and anger, he comes to the closet door—opening it slowly—as Sylvester stands inside with a raised Beretta in his hand. The sense of "what will happen next?" is the dramatic device that created high anticipation for Kelly's strategic release of each chapter within mass media and among his fans. Radio stations, television networks, and even billboards promoted the arrival of each of Kelly's episodes of high drama. Indeed, the opportunity to peek into the "closet"—to enter into what was a discreet space—offered people insights into an unknown world, even if it was only a construction of Kelly's imagination. However, what is most memorable about this moment of Kelly's artistry is the public controversy that he evoked with the closing of chapter 2 in the Trapped in the Closet series.

Chapter 2 starts up at the moment when Sylvester is found in the closet holding a gun. He steps out of the closet, with gun raised, and engages in a conversation with Rufus that reveals that Sylvester was unaware of Rufus's relationship with Cathy, who wore a wig to disguise her identity and asked him to come home with her. It is also revealed that Rufus is a pastor.

The tension of the flailing gun is tempered as Rufus decides that "since we're all coming out of the closet today," he would too. Rufus then makes a phone call and says, "Baby ... I just need for you to get back right here now." As we, the audience, anticipate the entrance of his mystery lover, Sylvester and Cathy also wait tensely for the arrival. There is a creak up the stairs and then a knock, and Sylvester narrates, "A knock on the door ... and the gun's in my hand ... he opens the door ... I can't believe it's a man!" And out of the liminal space of the hallway comes Chuck.

This positionality, the clandestine relationship of these two men, not only becomes accentuated by Kelly as director, but is also a signature moment in public memory. Seemingly, the masses of people who witnessed the debut of this chapter of the series were in shock; I counted approximately twenty radio conversations on the day of its release that posed the question, "Sister, what would you do if your man was sleeping with another man?"

This question has been central to black public discourse since 200 , with black men who sleep with other men while maintaining relationships with women receiving a considerable amount of critical mass-media attention. These men who often disidentify with traditional descriptors of sexuality (gay, bisexual, etc.) have been referred to and refer to themselves as "men on the down low" (DL). Often DL men practice discreet sexual acts while privileging spaces that are more heteronormative and that often protect or conceal their male-male sexual desires/practices. Indeed, the momentum of the DL topic within media caught my interest, as the discourse conjoined issues of black masculinity and sexuality. While mass-media attention has focused almost exclusively on those men who travel between sexes, the term "DL" is often employed by men who only have sex with men and employ a sexual politics of discretion. The disinterest by mass media in the men who solely have discreet relations with other men makes it clear what is at the core of popular fascination with this phenomenon: a crisis over sexual certainty.

The press has often framed "DL brothas" as being the primary carriers of HIV/AIDS, while implying that the solution is for DL men to "come out" to the black "community," as the anxiety around sexual uncertainty grows. Consequently, it is the ability of some men to "pass for straight" that has become the central focus of mass media. While on the one hand, it is clear that there are valid concerns over transmission of disease (especially considering the lack of explanation for rising cases of HIV/AIDS among black women), the rhetoric around this subject still signals more angst over ownership of black men's (hetero)sexuality and an expected correlation between gender presentation and sexual desires. The anxiety created through this perpetuation of "black male crisis" has cast DL men's "private" practices as fodder for public consumption and obsession. Sexual Discretion: Black Masculinity and the Politics of Passing is an attempt to situate the DL and black men's private sexual practices within a larger historical and cultural framework, while also attending to the labor of black masculinity as an organizing structure for how these communities are constituted, as well as represented in media. While much of the public interest is fixed on deception and the potential of disease, my book pushes beyond this focus and reveals how the DL phenomena illuminates a complex working politics among black men (and women) called sexual discretion. As Juan Battle and Sandra Barnes suggest in their important anthology Black Sexualities:

The nature and scope of the Black experience means considering what sexualities mean and how they manifest across the life course as well as how structural forces associated with poverty, political, and legal systems influence sexual decision making. (2009, 6)

Therefore, to answer their call, I look closely at articulations of sexual passing (performing discretion to move into respectable categories of sexual identity), while following men of various class backgrounds into virtual and physical spaces of erotic desire, and examining media and popular handlings of black male sexuality. I contend that the DL illuminates the centrality and complexity of black sexual politics—particularly unmasking the creative possibilities and dangers that emerge at the site of sexual and gender regulation. In order to understand how the DL both regulates and produces possibilities for black men, it is important to explore the etymological roots of the down low, which illuminate its relationship to the larger construct of sexual discretion.

The Down Low: A Case of Sexual Discretion

The term "down low" (DL) has come to be understood as describing a group of problematic black men who sleep with other men while having relationships with wives/girlfriends. But within the black community, the DL has always been more than an identity. The DL, in its long history within the black expressive tradition, has most commonly been understood as "something kept very quiet and secretive; also something done on the sly" (Smitherman 199 , 109). The DL acts as an epistemology—a knowing and doing outside of the common eye, or more aptly the scenes of surveillance. This way of doing and knowing was made evident through the "hush-hush," "quiet as kept," literally down-low positioning of things in both our communities and within our minds. This DL epistemological presence was articulated in the "hush" and "quiet" in slave songs and Negro spirituals, as well as the everyday adages that emphasized logics such as "be still and know." As black people have always been subject to social and juridical rule, they have attempted to move outside of the realm of discipline and punish. As they employed a discreet life (DL), which hid their innermost thoughts, they exemplified an early recognition of visibility's trap. Visibility seems to endanger the subject's individual agency—as bodies and cultures on display become available for control and usurpation. In this logic, spectacles—visible subjects and their personal repertoire—become controlled by those who have the power to determine their meaning and make public those things that marginal subjects hide for safekeeping. Therefore, these performative utterances and cultural vernacular expressions are not simply catchphrases, but indicative of the ways in which many black people deploy language to negotiate the safety of their identities. The importance given to such terms and discreet doings in scenes of high social constraint (slavery, lynching, Jim Crow) speaks to a recognition of how integral the "out of sight" moments were for those whose freedoms have historically been tied to secrets and careful renderings of information.

Of particular interest is how blacks use various maxims to signify not only the location of the information to be protected, but also to assert an evaluative judgment on the "nature" of the protecting. As early as the 1920s, there were maxims that accentuated the spatial register of those things that people dare not speak aloud. Kevin Mumford has excavated the term "low life" as a way to describe the black underground culture (cabarets, vice districts, balls) that enabled a commingling of queers, blacks and whites, as well as transgendered subjects. The use of the term "low life" here is not only a way to describe where in the community these activities took place, but also how the larger community may have interpreted participation in such venues outside the scene of black respectability. Nonetheless, practitioners of "deviance" had to move from up high (visibility) to places down low (clandestine), in order to express their desires, pleasures, and understandings of community.

This latter point can be seen most explicitly in a groundbreaking essay by Darlene Clark Hine, which I argue inadvertently speaks to the presence of sexual discretion within black life. Hine's essay "Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West: Preliminary Thoughts on the Culture of Dissemblance" anticipates sexual discretion, as she narrates "a cult of secrecy, a culture of dissemblance, to protect the sanctity of inner aspects of their lives" (1998, 915). Since this essay, there has been no serious treatment of dissemblance, especially in terms of how it works within masculine contexts. Indeed, the DL is often understood as an "enigmatic" registering of silence, which conceals the inner and/or outer tensions between race, gender, and sexuality in black men's lives. While Hine rightfully situates the politics of dissemblance (discretion) as a coping mechanism within a history of rape and violence toward women, my aim here is to recognize the mechanics of this presence within black men's lives. Though most men with whom I spoke in this book were not victims of sexual violence, they were often governed by a world that committed violence against them when they acted outside of the gender norms for black men. Physical and verbal violence that policed their gender performance and sexual desire were often the norm of their day—teaching them what deemed them as proper black men in the context of urban regimes of masculinity. As one man said to me matter-of-factly, "You knew what was questionable and what should never be discussed." This current position of dissemblance and discretion speaks back to the histories of "coping" that have been a part of black male and female worlds. The DL, like the culture of dissemblance, offers a way for men to navigate the complex web of gender, race, class, and sexuality. The DL can also be traced to its most literal manifestation, the Underground Railroad, where thousands of slaves went "down low" to protect themselves from the demonizing gaze and hold of white supremacy. This example, like the life histories of the men with whom I spoke, illustrates how subjection can dangerously animate DL subjectivity. Late scholar Charles Clifton cited the presence of "homoerotic images, potential homoerotic relations, and alternative interpretations of same-sex relations" (2000, 55) during slavery as examples of early DL sexual realities. When coupling this with how black slaves would secretly teach their families how to read in clandestine areas with secret codes, it becomes clear that DL activity is not new nor contained to only certain dimensions of black cultural practices. While it may seem odd to employ the DL to these earlier happenings, in times where such language was unavailable, the social/sexual/cultural performances by many black subjects have historically occupied a space or location that can possibly be understood as the "underworld" (Herring 200 , 201). When one looks closely at the social worlds of the Harlem Renaissance and through time up to the present hip-hop culture, we witness how artists, politicians, and intellectuals employ discrete performances of social and sexual identities that often defy notions of respectability. To follow the DL backward or forward is to begin to follow the "ghosts"5 that Avery Gordon notes may be instructive to understanding the "dense site where history and subjectivity make social life" (2008, 8). DL men and women exemplify a "complex personhood"—where they negotiate between the acceptable and unacceptable, the respectable and disrespectable, the queer and the non-queer. This navigation, a DL way of being in the world, is an articulation of a politics of discretion—which is not exclusive to sexual acts or outsiders, but rather available to all who seek agency under the constraints of surveillance.


Excerpted from Sexual Discretion by JEFFREY Q. MCCUNE JR.. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents



One / Introduction: Discrete/Discreet Acts, Goin’ Down Low

Two / Yo’ Daddy’s Dysfunctional: Risk, Blame, and Necessary Fictions in Down-Low Discourse

Three / “Out” in the Club: The Down Low, Hip-Hop,and the Architexture of Black Masculinity

Four / Goin’ Down Low: Virtual Space and thePerformance of Masculine Sincerity

Five / The Pages Are Ridden with Discretion:  Pedagogy of the Pass and Present

Conclusion: From Sexual Discretion to Sexual Suspicion




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