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7 comments | Monday, October 11, 2010

Dear Oprah,

On a beautiful, sunny October 7th afternoon in Atlanta, Georgia, I sat down to enjoy a rare occasion where I could come home early from work to catch a new episode of your daily talk show that I have watched on and off for the better part of the past 3 decades. Upon pressing the info button on my remote, I learned that your show would be discussing a woman who “sued her husband for 12 million and won,” after finding out he had given her the HIV virus. To say I watched this episode unfold in horror is a profound understatement – I was uncomfortably riveted and disgusted for the entire hour.

To be quite clear, I wasn’t horrified or disgusted by the fact that this unfortunate Black woman had contracted HIV as a result of her husband’s secretive “Down Low” infidelities with other men. As a Black gay male, physician and public health advocate who has dedicated the past 12 years of my life to the behavioral prevention and treatment of HIV in the Black community, I have heard stories like your guest’s on this day more times than I would like to admit. To the contrary, the acidic taste of bile that coated the back of my throat as I heard her story was in response to the superficial and sensationalistic manner in which you handled the topic, and how it was apparent that you and your staff have learned absolutely nothing in the 6 years since you originally interviewed J.L. King on your “Down Low” episode in 2004.

Yes, you can claim that for this updated version of your “Down Low” show, you actually included the fact that publically “heterosexual” White men and men of other races are equally capable of having secretive homosexual affairs as their Black counterparts. And yes, this new version of J.L. King who again opportunistically sashayed onto your stage to promote himself now uses the word “gay” to describe his sexual identity (partly as a consequence of the fame and fortune he attained from appearing on your show). However, everything else about the show remained stuck in a metaphorical time warp in which Black women are portrayed as simple victims with no personal responsibility or accountability when it comes to their sexual behavior, and Black men are projected as nothing more than predatory liars, cheaters and “mosquito-like” vectors of disease when it comes to HIV.

I felt like I was like watching a train wreck or an car accident about to happen: it was so awful that despite wanting to turn it off, I found myself transfixed and could not bring myself to pick up the remote or change the channel. From the ominous background music and blurred images on the screen when discussing Black men being intimate with one another (God forbid!), to your declaration that reading your guest’s husband’s sexually explicit emails and messages on gay websites “blew your mind,” the way in which your show was staged did nothing to forward the conversation on the current facts or the social context that currently drives secretive same sex behavior among Black men and the current HIV racial disparity in the United States. Instead, what came across was a clear, fear-mongering and hyperbolic message: “Black women, look out for your husbands, they could be lying and cheating on you with other men and putting you at risk for HIV.”

It was bad enough that 6 years ago, after your original “Down Low” show, you single-handedly launched a major media and cultural hysteria where Black women across the country were now searching for signs of how they could tell if their men were “on the Down Low” through stereotypical signs and ridiculously offensive generalizations about how homosexual men think and act. Your show also helped J.L. King and other self-proclaimed “HIV experts” make a lot of money off this capitalistic, fear-based industry to promote their books, movies and narcissistic products on the so-called “Down Low.” It did nothing, however, but open new wounds and put salt in the old scars caused by centuries of sexual exploitation and calculated pathologizing of Black bodies in the United States and internationally. The way you and your staff have handled this topic has done nothing but widen the already irreparable rifts between Black men and women, as well as between Black heterosexual and non-heterosexual peoples.

While I realize that this is your show’s “final season,” let me give you and your staff some suggestions on how you can better address this issue of the “Down Low” and HIV in the Black community if you ever wish to revisit this issue during this year:

Please do some research on the facts explaining why so many Black women in the United States are contracting HIV. I can guarantee you that what you find will surprise you, as the vast majority of cases are not due to so-called “Down Low” Black men. Remember that in other countries like South Africa, India, Russia and China, there are millions of HIV cases attributable to heterosexual transmission. Ask yourselves where is the proof, outside of anecdotal stories that are splashed on your show, BET and the pages of Essence magazine, that bisexual men are primarily accountable for this horrible disparity among Black women?

If you are going to tell the story of HIV in the Black community, please give equal consideration to the social context and personal story/struggles of Black men who contract the virus, regardless of whether it is through IV drug use or sexual behavior. I can tell you for certain that if you sit down and ask these men to tell their stories, you will undoubtedly have your eyes opened to the fact that there is much more to their lives than the “predator” labels you so easily ascribe to their actions. And believe it or not, Black men can also be “victims” of this disease when exposed through their wives or female sexual partners who don’t tell them about the other people with whom THEY have been having sex.

If you are going to talk about the so-called “Down Low,” then really talk about it. That means, be prepared to discuss how Black men are socialized in this country to believe that our manhood solely exists in our athletic prowess, entertainment value, and the size and potency of the flap of skin that dangles between our legs. Moreover, be prepared to talk about how these manhood expectations placed on Black man are in stark contrast to the stereotypical images and expectations of “gay” men we see in the media: White men who assume a gender performance of how women are traditionally expected to act. And then talk about our society’s pervasive disdain, hatred and religious condemnation of anything that does not fall into a heterosexual “man-woman” norm of relationships and behavior, and how this puts pressure on men to deny who they truly are for fear of rejection and isolation.

Only when you begin to scratch the surface of these dynamics can you begin to rise above your current myopic and pathologic lens through which you view and project secret homosexuality and bisexuality as an “immoral act” on your show.

Have your team do better research on the notion that just because men do not disclose that they have same sex relations to their female sexual partners DOES NOT automatically mean that they are irresponsible when it comes to condom use. Simply put, “coming out of the closet” does not mean that a formerly “Down Low” brother will increase his condom use. I can provide you team with numerous studies to support this statement if it goes against your preconceived notions of the so-called “benefits” of “coming out.”

Withhold your judgment and disdain for explicit homosexual websites until you take time to explore websites like craigslist, nudeafrica.com, xtube.com and the many others that heterosexuals are just as freaky, raunchy and sex-crazed as homosexuals are. If you really want to read some conversations, pictures and videos that will “blow your mind,” check out these websites and do a show on how HUMAN BEINGS are sexual creatures – instead of suggesting that homosexually active people have a monopoly on that market.

Finally, if you are going to have a discourse on homosexuality or bisexuality on your show in the future, please be bold and courageous enough to tell the various sides of men’s stories. We are not all self-loathing, secretive, unprotected sex-having, disease ridden liars. Surely in the work you have done in the entertainment field over the past 3 decades, you have interacted with enough same gender loving men to realize that sexuality is a fluid journey for anyone, and that there are many Black homosexual men who are well-adjusted, comfortable with who we are, and at peace with our lives.

Oprah, I was so disappointed with your show and treatment of this follow up to your “Down Low” episode 6 years ago that I don’t know if I really care to watch the remainder of this, your final season. As a seasoned journalist, you have intricately described and explored the nuances of diverse topics such as eating disorders, mental health, spirituality, violence and criminality, cultural diversity and even the benevolent nature of human beings on numerous shows. You have approached these topics with a sensitivity and attention to detail regarding the social contexts driving human behavior, that even the most skeptical viewer can understand why some people do the things they do. So why is it with this topic (the so-called “Down Low”), particularly when it comes to the task of actually humanizing Black men, that you and your staff appear mentally, emotionally and intellectually incapable of creating a show that shows the rich, diverse and complex experience of being a Black male and homosexual in this country? Is it really that difficult?

As one of the most powerful human beings this country has seen in the past 30 years, and someone whose show I grew up watching, it would be nice if you realized your influence and took more personal responsibility for the quality of your shows that address serious topics like HIV in the Black community. The careless manner in which you continue to drive a wedge between relationships among Black men and women, between heterosexuals and homosexuals in this country through your one-sided analysis of Black sexuality in your shows is reprehensible. And I for, one, refuse to sit by idly and say nothing while you spoon feed sensationalism and fear to our community who will all too willingly eat every last drop because it comes from your hand. I need you to do better Oprah – the world is watching.

David J. Malebranche, MD, MPH
Assistant Professor
Emory University Division of General Medicine


<$BlogCommentAuthor$> said...

Dr. Malebranche you told a side that should have been on the show. She did not have not one person on there to balance the hate and to talk about what is really going on. Mr King is GAY and he did what soceity wanted him to do. That is get married to a woman and have a big house with a white picket fence. Nevermind being happy with yourself and being who you really are and feel. So I must say this was dead on and hopefully Ms O will read this and add this to her show before she goes out.

October 11, 2010 12:46 PM

<$BlogCommentAuthor$> said...

"be prepared to discuss how Black men are socialized in this country to believe that our manhood solely exists in our athletic prowess, entertainment value, and the size and potency of the flap of skin that dangles between our legs"

BRAVO Dr. Malebranche

October 11, 2010 6:19 PM

<$BlogCommentAuthor$> said...

the sad thing is that Oprah does not want to tell this story because it would not get the ratings she received from embracing the downlow the way she did it is more nuanced and take more time than she was willing to give

October 17, 2010 11:12 PM

<$BlogCommentAuthor$> said...

Many great points, here Doc. But watch those unintended puns: "fluid journey" -- indeed.

October 20, 2010 5:02 PM

<$BlogCommentAuthor$> said...

Bravo!! I am glad to see, in writing, some evidence that Oprah doesn't always see the male point of view. Dr. you said it all. I feel Oprah has alway did a disservice where men involved, unless she liked you. However, I am not bashing Oprah. I take pride in our Black American woman and all of her success. Like you expressed, people are watching. The images and opinions seen and expressed on her show can influence a nation.

October 22, 2010 5:10 PM

<$BlogCommentAuthor$> said...

I came across this a little late in the game so I don't know if anyone will even read this. I did see the the show. My reaction to it was very different from yours. The topic of the show was a woman who married a man who lead her to believe he was straight. She trusted him. Quite normal when you're in any kind of relation, no? Turns out, he lied. We can go on forever about why he lied, external pressure to conform & be what is expected of you & so forth. It still doesn't change the fact that he lied about who he was. He decieved a woman he claimed to love. On top of that, he infected her with HIV. Like it or not, if anyone is a victim here, it's his wife. When someone's life has been impacted like that, the last thing they want hear is how you suffer from low self esteem or how you lacked positive affirmation as a child. I can see- from personal experience - how that can lead to fear of exposure & self hate, but it's plain wrong to suck someone else into the vortex of your confusion. When you do that, you move from victim to perpetrator. You're using someone else's life as a cover to mask who you are. There is no justification for that, homophobia & self hate notwithstanding. You're abusing someone's trust, playing games with their life because you are not strong enough to be real.

You said women need to take responsibility for who they have sex with. Then you bemoan the "hysteria" among women concerning guys who are DL or closeted( I prefer to use the latter ). You can't have it both ways. As uncomfortable as it may make some, women need to be sure the guy they are laying next to is who he says he is. Not to do so could have dire, if not deadly consequences. To cover yourself, some feelings may get hurt. Some might be offended but such is life.

Basically, the issues you brought up in your open letter are another show. They should be addressed, but not in a way that absolves gay men of their duty to be honest with themselves first, then to those around them. Homophobia is no reason to be irresponsible.

June 08, 2011 3:30 PM

<$BlogCommentAuthor$> said...

I know Dr Malebranche very well. My husband was a patient of his. To be exact my husband gave me HIV while we were dating. Dont get me wrong I do not feel like my husband was right to do what he did and there is no excuse for what he did. I just beleive that it is up to his God and maker on what happens from here. My God gave me peace and had me focusing on what to do from here.
From attending the clinic and getting familar with people more like me I found out that the HIV disease has been hidden from being focus on because so many beleive that it comes from gay men or down low brothers. My husband got it from his girl friend at the time and I got it from him. No gay men or down low brother is even in the equation. I have done some speaking assigments for CDC and at different Churches. More people beleive they can't get it unless they have a down low husband or mate. This is far from true. This disease is spreaded by bad sexual habits. It doesn't matter what your sexual preferance is. Until we realize this, we are going to be a long way from getting true prevention from the disease.
Please practice protected sex and be responsible for your own actions. Do not put your life in anyones hands but your own. You are responsible. I can say that my husband gave me the disease but I can't say that I had nothing to do with it. I said yes to unprotected sex and reguardless of what I beleive a persons actions should be I still have HIV. Love yourself no one should be responsible for our lives but ourselves. Especially if it can be controlled. Just like sex can cause unwanted children and other sexual diseases we have to take reponsibility for our on actions.
Lets focus on preventions and not poke fingers and forget the true facts. The fact there are alot of people male and female dying from a disease that we do not want to control because we want to sterotype people for why they have it.

November 26, 2012 12:12 AM


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