Tarrodd is a vivacious, pansexual 23-year-old club promoter living in Akron, Ohio. He dated his girlfriend, Jamie, for six years and then got engaged. But Jamie never went over to her boyfriend's house — because Marvin lived there.
Marvin knew only vague details about Tarrodd's relationship with Jamie. But Jamie didn't know Marvin even existed. The truth is he’s Tarrodd’s boyfriend. Conflict and distrust bred in both of the relationships until Tarrodd finally decided it's time to be honest with his loved ones.
By mainstream standards, Tarrodd had very much lived life “on the down low.” He’s a young, urban black man terrified that coming out will separate him from his family, his friends, and everyone he holds dear. That fear led Tarrodd to hide his sexuality and pursue multiple partners of different genders without telling his fiancée. And while the so-called down low reached the height of public attention years ago, it hasn’t just faded away.
Author J.L. King appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2005 to discuss his best-selling book — On The Down Low: A Journey Into The Lives of "Straight" Black Men Who Sleep with Men — and the nation was collectively introduced to a secretive phenomenon, and added a powerful new derogatory term to its cultural lexicon.
"The down low, as we know it, has a negative connotation," says Earnest Winborn, executive producer of the award-winning web series NoMoreDownLow TV, which first launched in 2010. "A lot of people feel that it is a term used to vilify bisexual black men."
That vilification is brought to light with heartrending clarity in next Wednesday's episode of MTV's documentary series True Life Presents: Living On The Down Low: Secrets, Lies, and Sex. The episode drops viewers into the complex, secrecy-filled world of Tarrodd, and a 23-year-old bisexual man nicknamed Coke.
When we meet Coke, he's living in his mother's house in Cleveland and dating a woman named Tam, who is pregnant with the couple's first child. Tam doesn't know that Coke works as a male escort for extra cash. He identifies as bisexual but has strict rules about what kind of sexual conduct he's comfortable with, and it's obvious Coke struggles with immense shame about his identity, even worrying it’s caused by having been sexually abused by a family member as a child.
"When it comes to a boy that I'm sexually attracted to, I like them," says Coke. "But when it comes to doing stuff with them, I can't do it. I know what I like. But in the back of my head, I'm like, This ain't right. I just can't do it."
Coke's girlfriend, Tam, reacted almost violently to his coming out, hurling antigay slurs before storming from the car. They have barely spoken since.
"Tam is acting like I'm the devil in her eyes," says Coke. "[Like] I'm just the worst thing to ever happen to her… but she won't even let me explain myself…. I never did anything to jeopardize her. A lot of people out here, they're doing some nasty stuff… doing some boys without a condom — a lot of stuff I know that goes on. But I never ever did anything to jeopardize her."
“My thing was like ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’” says Coke, explaining why he doesn’t consider himself on the down low. “If Tam would have asked me, are you gay or are you bisexual? Then I would have told her. It never ever came up. Never.”
Coke's mom took the news that his girlfriend was pregnant with strikingly more grace than she did her son's announcement that he is bisexual.
"She's in denial about the whole situation," says Coke. "And now I think she's blaming herself…I feel kind of awkward around her." Since coming out, Coke says he moved 35 miles away from his mother's house, and sees her only occasionally. They haven't discussed his orientation — or the sexual abuse that Coke refers to as "the incident" — since MTV's cameras left.
Progress on views about being gay, or on marriage equality for example, has shown striking speed among black voters in the year since President Obama announced his own support. But majority support in some recent state polls belies the other side of the coin — that many views are still not part of any evolution.
"The root of this comes in the shame and the humiliation from the religious African-American community that homosexuality, bisexuality… is the number one sin," says Winborne, himself a black gay man. “The African-American community has placed this shame on people who identify as being gay, bisexual, or LGBT. It’s like being LGBT is a shame on our race.”
Even in the MTV special, that condemnation is far from universal. Before he came out widely as pansexual, Tarrodd had friends and a select few family members who knew about, and accepted, his orientation. Unlike Coke’s mother, Tarrodd’s mom helped her son find the words to come out, then offered him a hug, a knowing smile, and a promise that she will always love him.
“I was really excited,” about how his mom reacted, says Tarrodd. “Then I felt kind of stupid, because I probably could have came and said something to her a long time ago.”
Like Coke, Tarrodd doesn’t want to be labeled “on the down low.” In fact, both men expressed frustration about the title of the episode, noting that when they signed contracts with MTV, the episode was called “True Life: Bad Boys of Cleveland.”
“At this point, I’m still trying to figure myself out, and not be considered a down low person,” says Tarrodd. “Down low is more so a person who is married, has a family, someone who is doing both of these things. I’m still young and I still feel like I have time to figure it out. Since I do identify with not really loving one specific gender, I feel like there’s a lot out here for me to see still, and I haven’t seen half of it yet.”
Tarrodd says since the show finished taping last week, his friends and family have already noticed a positive change in him.
“I feel like I’m actually finding myself now, and that I’m not living under a rock anymore,” says Tarrodd. “And now my friends are telling me that my personality has gotten way better — they feel like I treat them better as friends.… It’s a whole other energy that I feel, that I didn’t have when I wasn’t out. So it feels good.”
While Tarrodd is reveling in his newfound authenticity, he hopes that sharing his story will help other young people struggling to come out.
“I want to try to help other people who are in the same predicament as me,” says Tarrodd. “I’ve spent so much time lying and keeping it a secret, that I felt it was time to put the icing on the cake and come out with it…. I want to be that platform that can show somebody else, OK, this is how you do it.”
“We get really scared about what others think of us when we're put into a little box,” Tarrodd continues. “And I just want people to know that it’s OK to be themselves. And if someone doesn’t want to accept you for who you are, then they shouldn’t be in your life.”
That’s advice that Coke has taken to heart, as he says he’s now spending time with a woman named Jeane, who he “really, really cares about” and who accepts his bisexuality and supports him in being out.
“It’s like I’m not trapped anymore,” says Coke. “I have someone to talk to. It’s brought about a very positive change.”
And although he’s still nervous about the program airing, Coke believes that his courage will help other people who are afraid to come out, and hopes that by being honest, he can help prevent the kind of shame and secrecy that led his older brother to commit suicide six years ago. Coke doesn’t think his brother was gay, but he hopes his openness will inspire courage in others.
“If someone can sit in front of the TV and be like, OK, I can tell my mother I’m gay,” then his participation was worth it, Coke says, getting emotional. “A lot of people don’t understand, they think it’s so wrong. I thought it was the sickest shit. Like, what is wrong with me? I’m sick, this is not right. But it’s OK. And that’s what I want to get across. It’s OK.”
True Life Presents: Living On The Down Low: Secrets, Lies, and Sex airs on MTV Wednesday, May 22. Check your local listings for scheduling.