Double Lives On The Down Low
By Benoit Denizet-Lewis
Published: August 3, 2003,
The New York Times
In its upper stories, the Flex bathhouse in Cleveland feels like a squash club for backslapping
businessmen. There's a large gym with free weights and exercise machines on the third floor. In
the common area, on the main floor, men in towels lounge on couches and watch CNN on big-
In the basement, the mood is different: the TV's are tuned to porn, and the dimly lighted hallways
buzz with sexual energy. A naked black man reclines on a sling in a room called ''the dungeon
play area.'' Along a hallway lined with lockers, black men eye each other as they walk by in
towels. In small rooms nearby, some men are having sex. Others are napping.
There are two bathhouses in Cleveland. On the city's predominantly white West Side, Club
Cleveland -- which opened in 1965 and recently settled into a modern 15,000-square-foot space
-- attracts many white and openly gay men. Flex is on the East Side, and it serves a mostly black
and Hispanic clientele, many of whom don't consider themselves gay. (Flex recently shut its
doors temporarily while it relocates.)
I go to Flex one night to meet Ricardo Wallace, an African-American outreach worker for the
AIDS Task Force of Cleveland who comes here twice a month to test men for H.I.V. I eventually
find him sitting alone on a twin-size bed in a small room on the main floor. Next to him on the
bed are a dozen unopened condoms and several oral H.I.V.-testing kits.
Twenty years ago, Wallace came here for fun. He was 22 then, and AIDS seemed to kill only
gay white men in San Francisco and New York. Wallace and the other black men who
frequented Flex in the early 80's worried just about being spotted walking in the front door.
Today, while there are black men who are openly gay, it seems that the majority of those having
sex with men still lead secret lives, products of a black culture that deems masculinity and
fatherhood as a black man's primary responsibility -- and homosexuality as a white man's
perversion. And while Flex now offers baskets of condoms and lubricant, Wallace says that
many of the club's patrons still don't use them.
Wallace ticks off the grim statistics: blacks make up only 12 percent of the population in
America, but they account for half of all new reported H.I.V. infections. While intravenous drug
use is a large part of the problem, experts say that the leading cause of H.I.V. in black men is
homosexual sex (some of which takes place in prison, where blacks disproportionately
outnumber whites). According to the Centers for Disease Control, one-third of young urban
black men who have sex with men in this country are H.I.V.-positive, and 90 percent of those are
unaware of their infection.
We don't hear much about this aspect of the epidemic, mostly because the two communities most