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Sexual Discretion

Black Masculinity and the Politics of Passing

African American men who have sex with men while maintaining a heterosexual lifestyle in public are attracting increasing interest from both the general media and scholars. Commonly referred to as “down-low” or “DL” men, many continue to have relationships with girlfriends and wives who remain unaware of their same-sex desires, and in much of the media, DL men have been portrayed as carriers of HIV who spread the virus to black women. Sexual Discretion explores the DL phenomenon, offering refreshingly innovative analysis of the significance of media, space, and ideals of black masculinity in understanding down low communities.

In Sexual Discretion, Jeffrey Q. McCune Jr. provides the first in-depth examination of how the social expectations of black masculinity intersect and complicate expressions of same-sex affection and desire. Within these underground DL communities, men aren’t as highly policed—and thus are able to maintain their public roles as “properly masculine.” McCune draws from sources that range from R&B singer R. Kelly’s epic hip-hopera series Trapped in the Closet to Oprah’s high-profile exposé on DL subculture; and from E. Lynn Harris’s contemporary sexual passing novels to McCune’s own interviews and ethnography in nightclubs and online chat rooms. Sexual Discretion details the causes, pressures, and negotiations driving men who rarely disclose their intimate secrets.


“Academic yet accessible, McCune takes to task the media’s contemporary discourse on the ‘down low’ by examining the issue through interviews and surveys of 60 DL men, the media’s fascination and handling of the subject, and a look at the subject in the context of the ‘passing’ literature.”

Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Round Table of the American Library Association

“Profound. . . . The texts’ appeal goes beyond mere intellectual engagement whereas McCune delivers a cultural analysis that can be easily consumed by the general public.”

Sexuality & Culture

“McCune’s Sexual Discretion is an exciting, timely, and important study that blasts the now encrusted mythologies about the so-called 'down low,' advancing our understanding of the mass mediation and lived experiences of sexually nonconforming African American men while also stretching and challenging ethnographic methodology and racial theories of sexuality. The book explores an impressive range of social venues – from the Oprah TV show to the inner workings of a popular Chicago nightclub; from online chat rooms to the sexual contests occurring across black literary history. As McCune tracks how African American men adopt, resist, and disavow the DL as a meaningful sexual identity, he handles these different sites with analytical rigor, deftness, and sensitivity – important given the constant barrage of misinformation fueling the DL controversy. This is a must-read for anyone interested in getting a handle on the complex, fast-changing sexual and racial politics of contemporary U.S. society.”

Marlon Ross | University of Virginia

“Sexual Discretion contributes to a powerful and emerging effort to rethink ‘the down low’ as a way to make sense of black masculinity and the public threat it ostensibly represents. McCune’s ambitious argument provides a critical ‘architexture’ for explaining how the DL is constituted along various mass-mediated trajectories, helping readers to consider, more critically, the ways in which we continually reproduce essentialist/counter-productive notions of race, gender, sexuality and their inextricable linkages. Part of what makes Sexual Discretion so interesting is its effort to keep traditional participant-observation in productive tension with textual, discursive, literary, and media analyses. The book’s radical investment in mixed qualitative methods is extremely effective. Moreover, McCune’s discussion of ‘The Gate’ reads as a powerful ethnographic portrait of Chicago night-life that represents a wonderful new addition to canonical sociological and anthropological forays into that famous city. This is an excellent book that works in the classroom and far beyond it.”

John L. Jackson, Jr., author of Thin Description: Ethnography and the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem

“McCune’s Sexual Discretion is a brilliant study of discrete race, gender, and queer, sexual politics. McCune’s exceptionally probing and original account of the down low makes this work both unique and essential reading. Sexual Discretion enriches African American studies and gender studies with an exquisite excavation and finely tuned analysis of multi-layered representations and performances of black masculinity.”

Darlene Clark Hine, coeditor of The Black Chicago Renaissance

Sexual Discretion is the first scholarly treatment of straight-passing black men sleeping with other men. McCune’s provocative book is an exposé not of the sexual practices that have become part of contemporary discourses about black male sexual life but of the will to truth that continues to haunt sexuality in general. This must-read book is a welcome addition to the evolving field of black queer studies.”

Roderick Ferguson | University of Minnesota

“In this superlative study, McCune addresses the concept of the ‘down low’ in a sophisticated manner that transcends any of the popular literature on the subject. A combination of ethnographic study, media analysis, and theoretical work, the book challenges both the media hysteria regarding the down low and what this concept actually is. . . . Sexual Discretion is a must read for those working in the fields of sexuality, race, and gender studies. One hopes that McCune will continue to revise his research in this rapidly changing culture. Highly recommended.”


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





Choice Magazine: CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Awards

Caucus on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Concerns and the GLBTQ Communication Studies Division: NCA GLBTQ Book of the Year Award

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