Faith Over Fear: One Man's Journey From the Downlow by J'son M. Lee
Author, JL King, is no stranger to controversy. In fact, he is the man that many love to hate. He is best known for his first book, On the Down Low: A Journey Into the Lives of Straight Black Men Who Sleep with Men which appeared on The New York Times best seller list for more than 30 consecutive weeks. In April 2004, JL King introduced millions of Oprah viewers to the phrase "living on the down low." During that episode, King spoke very candidly about men who have relationships with women, but have sex with other men. In fact, while married, JL admitted to having sex with multiple male partners—sometimes in his own home while his wife slept upstairs – all the while maintaining he was not gay. King subsequently went back on the Oprah Show and changed his story. Now he proudly admits he is a man who loves men. For someone who is admittedly not big on labels, King certainly has had his share of them. In this exclusive interview, find out how he came to terms with his sexuality. Is he finally comfortable in his own skin? You be the judge.
Why do you think you rejected being labeled gay?
First of all, I’m not big on labels. I’ve never been a label person. At that point in my life I did not consider myself as being gay. To me, being gay meant something totally different…I was not going to gay clubs…I didn’t have boyfriends…I didn’t do all the gay things. I had a lot of friends that were like me. They were married, they had girlfriends, families, and they were living more of a straight life than a gay life. It didn’t register with me. That’s number one. Number two, I didn’t want gay to be associated with me because it had such a negative connotation. You’re talking about 2004. I lived in a small city and I was active in church. I had a Corporate America job, kids, and a family. I didn’t want people to think I fell under that umbrella of being gay. Being gay in my hometown had an ugly, negative label. It meant you were promiscuous…that you wore dresses and high heels….you were some type of flaming queen. Even today, African Americans still do not understand the gay community. There are so many facets of the gay community. I think that is one of the things I have tried to get people to understand; you cannot call all men gay.
I know you don’t like labels, but for the sake of this conversation you were labeled down-low (DL), correct?
I didn’t label myself period. I called myself down-low because I was a down-low brotha. Once again, I was married and had kids. I had more sex with women than men. So back then the terminology for men that had sex with men and nobody knew was down-low. You didn’t share that you were having sex with men.
So in your mind the DL label is better than having the gay label?
Yes, at that time if I had to label myself I would rather be down-low than gay.
So where are you now in this process of self-acceptance?
I am a man who loves men. I still don’t like labels. I think that labels are for cans on a shelf. For those that are proud to be gay and wear gay T-shirts, march in gay parades, and do all that, that’s fine. The majority of my friends are gay. I have a lot of gay friends that don’t want to be called gay. They just don’t want to be labeled and put into that category. But they know who they are. I think we have to get away from the gay thing. In our community people are homophobic. People are still on the down-low… still in the closet because of jobs, because of stigmas…people just don’t want to be called gay. I’m a member of several gay groups here in Atlanta - professional brothas - who get together to politic about relationships and life. One Sunday we had a conversation about the label “gay.” The majority say, “Yes I’m gay and that is who I am.” If you ask me yes I’m gay, but I’m not going to announce it to the world. I’m not going to be an activist and stand up. I’m not going to a gay parade. I’m not going to stand up and wear a sign. That’s how I live my life. That’s my business, and it is not for the world to judge me based on a label. I think my personal life is my personal life. I have been in the public eye for so many years. I think that people are too nosey. We need to get pass that. It should not be that important who I am or what I do unless I do it with you. I think we should get to a place in our community that we don’t judge people based on a label. I was the only brotha in history who got on a national TV show and said I was a proud, black gay father--a strong black gay man. I did that to ease the tension and the misunderstanding of what gay men are and what they look like and how they act. We are fathers, preachers, bishops, and businessmen. I used the word gay on Oprah the second time because I wanted to use that platform to help gay black men like me that did not fall in the stereotypical image. I’m counseling a young brotha in southern Georgia that came out and told his mother he was gay. His mother freaked out. She wanted to know if that meant he was going to wear a dress and makeup. She wanted to know if he was going to wear high heels, act like a girl, and want to have a sex change. I don’t think we have done a good job of representing different facets of being gay or sexual orientation. TV plays a big part in how we are viewed as gay men. I recently posted on Facebook that Bravo has no shows that highlight black gay men other than being flamboyant sissies. A lot of people watch the Housewives and other shows that only depict gay men like that.
You were very open about getting caught with a man while you were married. Can you tell us how you got caught?
I tell people to read the book. That’s why we write books. We want people to read them. I have hashed out over and over again how I got caught. The disconnect with my wife because I was unhappy with who I was, the lack of affection, attention and intimacy towards her led up to me being caught. I was miserable. Now I’m happy because I am not who I was. I was not my true self. When you get sloppy like that with your spouse, she will begin to ask questions. What is wrong with my man? Why is he neglecting me? Why is he not intimate with me? Why he is no longer caring? Why is he different? I got sloppy. I got careless. I didn’t care how she felt. I was selfish. It was all about me, me, me…I could not think about how I was dealing with her. I tell women when your man is not being the same person you married then something is wrong. Be nosey and find out what’s going on. It may not be that he is having sex with another man, it could be that he has another baby…another woman. Find out where he is going and who he is texting. Try to find out especially if you ask what’s wrong and he continues to push you away. That’s what my ex-wife did. She got nosey.
How is your relationship with your ex-wife and children now?
My relationship with my ex-wife is wonderful. She is my best friend. We spend holidays together, with our kids together, we have two adult children together. She is re-married. He and I are cool. I spend my birthday with them. We spend Thanksgiving in DC or New York where my son lives. She was just here with me for a weekend where we shot the Oprah show that aired in April. I talk to her every day. She is the executor of my estate. We have an ideal relationship where it is all about the family. It’s all about forgiveness and moving on. It’s all about sitting down with your ex and saying look baby I hurt you, but I had my own issues that I had to deal with and you just happened to be in my life at that time. When Brenda forgave me it was cool...it was like I could be myself. I didn’t have to go to family gatherings and pretend I had a girlfriend at home. I didn’t have to go to an outing and act like I was straight. I can talk to her about a guy I saw and like. She is the one that says bring your man, bring your partner. For her to be the one to say that is a blessing! Time heals all pain. My wife and I are a good example. My ex-wife and her husband, we chill together...we go bowling together. We are the new normal. We have come full circle. Our latest book is called The Ex-Factor: Finding Freedom to Heal, Forgive & Love Again. In it we write about our relationship and how we got to this place.
What would you say to young people who are struggling with their sexuality?
What you do in the dark will come to the light. What you are doing right now will haunt you later. I can personally speak on that. I’m working with a seventeen year old in a southern city and his mother wants me to help him come to grips with his sexuality. Like so many single mothers and grandmothers raising their gay children, they do not understand. They assume their grandson is going to be a make-up wearing, dress-wearing queen. I told him to give his mother a chance to know him and don’t force it on her. Give her time. Have those uncomfortable questions…let her know that you haven’t changed as an individual, as her son, as her daughter…that you are a new person and have come to grips with who you are. You don’t want to grow up being on the down-low; you don’t want to grow up being in the closet. You don’t want to bring people into a lie to please your parents. Find another gay person that can be the mediator between you and the family. If your church is still homophobic and still not open don’t go to your pastor. Too many parents have told the pastor, and the pastor was homophobic and said the boy needed counseling; he needed to be put away. Find someone you trust…someone you can talk to…don’t change for them, but don’t push it down their throat. Trust them and they will come around.
Faith over fear…what does that mean to you?
As an old man, I wish I would have used that when I was twenty years old. Faith is real. I recently was going through ups and downs. I had to lean on God…and this has nothing to do with homosexuality. You have to have a relationship with God. You have to know that God’s got you. You have to live your life in faith. When I got to the place where I was scared, it was then I had to really fall back on my faith. I had to use that helpless prayer where no one can help you, not your mama or daddy...brother...jobs…friends… you have to let go and let God. I have learned that faith over fear is a healthier way to live your life. I think God is using me. People have been trying to stop me…writing lies or making up shit about me...trying to take people back thirty years ago when I was a monster on the down-low. Whenever those daggers come for me, God has always been my shield. One day I want to really give a memoir of JL King. It would blow people’s minds away. Even when I make stupid mistakes and do things that I should not have done, God has come in and cleaned up my mess. I take none of the credit when I continue to stand tall. Until the day I die I will let him use me…
JL, thanks for sharing your story.