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Wonder Why You Can't Feel the Trust?

By Courtland Milloy
Sunday, February 20, 2005; Page C01

I came home the other day to find my wife reading "On the Down Low," that book about "straight" black men who have wives or girlfriends -- and also have sex with other men. "Baby, why are you reading that?" I asked.

"Just curious," she replied.

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"You don't think I'm on the down low?" I asked, jokingly.

"Well, you never know, judging from this," she said.

Turns out, the book, by J.L. King, includes a chapter called "Signs," which offers ways that a woman can tell if her man has a thing for dudes.

"The first thing women can do for themselves is open their minds to the possibility that their man might be interested in other men," writes King, a self-described "new man" and former down low brother. "Women have a powerful weapon against men living on the DL: their intuition. Many women have a sixth sense, an inner voice, and they are almost never wrong about things when it tweaks them."

I was tempted to dismiss King's book as an appeal to prurient interest in an attempt to cash in on his own crass behavior. But four letters gave me pause: AIDS.

In 2003, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of new AIDS cases for black women was 20 times that of white women. Moreover, AIDS is among the top three causes of death for black women ages 35 to 44. In the District, black women represent 90 percent of women living with AIDS but just 62 percent of all women, according to a report last year by the D.C. Health Department.

Any book that may help stem this deadly tide must be welcomed.

The Washington Post reported recently that some epidemiologists believe the causes of these high infection rates can be found in a complex web of socioeconomic and demographic conditions.

"Black neighborhoods . . . are more likely to be plagued by joblessness, poverty, drug use and a high ratio of women to men, a significant portion of whom cycle in and out of a prison system where the rate of HIV infection is estimated to be as much as 10 times higher than the general population," The Post reported.

In addition, the CDC has found that nearly one-third of young black gay men in six U.S. cities are infected with HIV. The results come from a study in 2001 of 2,400 gay and bisexual men between the ages of 23 and 29 in New York, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Dallas, Seattle and Miami. Among blacks, the infection rate was 30 percent, compared with 15 percent for Hispanics and 7 percent for whites.

A recent special health issue of the Crisis, which is published in association with the NAACP, noted that in February 2004, "there came reports of a surprising increase in HIV infections among Black male college students in North Carolina. . . . Research from the CDC found that of 84 newly infected male college students in the state over the past three years, 73 of them were Black. Only one Black student admitted using injected drugs, and just two said they had sex only with women. The others apparently were infected through sex with men."

If black women are worried, and angry, about this sickening state of affairs, who can blame them? Let's hope their concern translates into an insistence on the use of condoms -- if not outright abstinence.

King dedicates the book "to the women whose health has been jeopardized and emotional state compromised by men living on the DL and to all women in general who may use this book as a protective guide."

No doubt some women will come to swear by King's "early warning signals" for detecting a DL, even though most are so vague that any man could become a suspect.

"Some brothers make their connection with a handshake or a seemingly brotherly hug," King warns. "A hug that is just a second too long will signal to the other brother that he is open to hooking up."

So beware, fellows. If you're going to a class reunion or planning to meet up with buddies you haven't seen in a while, be sure to take a stopwatch.

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com

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