Mr. Elmo Was Married Too: Kevin Clash, Black Women and the “Downlow Phenomenon”

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By Clarene Mitchell
The recent predatory accusations by an acquaintance of Kevin Clash, the voice of the beloved “Sesame Street” character Elmo, instantly garnered media attention. Major television networks covered the shocking story and it became social media chatter.
However, the media coverage missed a very crucial angle…the danger the ‘down-low’ phenomenon poses to women, specifically to Black women.  Simply defined, the ‘down-low’ phraseology refers to the secretive lifestyle of men who sleep with other men and women, yet do not identify themselves as being gay or bi-s*xual. Within this context, the term generally refers to urban African American men.
According to the Black Women’s Health Imperative, “Nationally, Black women account for 66% of new cases of HIV among women.”  Another compelling reality is that the HIV rate among Black women in some cities in the United States is comparable to the HIV rate in some African countries. These statistics are worsening instead of improving.
Clash quickly countered the disturbing accusations by publicly announcing he was unashamedly gay, that the person in question was of age and they were involved in a mutually consensual relationship. The accuser has since recanted his claim. Perhaps the full truths of their involvement may never come out, but it is known that Clash was married and the father of one daughter. In fact, the 2011 documentary Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, featured Clash’s former wife and daughter. In the film, he lamented on not having enough family time due to the demands of his career. He reportedly divorced in 2003.  The recent developments should raise questions as to whether or not Clash was involved in gay relationships during his marriage.
There was a lot of talk about the ‘down-low’ phenomenon in 2005 when J.L. King’s book, On the Down Low, hit bookstores. It was featured reading for book clubs and King traveled the country giving lectures telling all about his own personal experiences being a ‘down-low’ brother.
These days there is little mention of ‘down-low’ brothers, the subculture of Black men who live double lives; giving the  outward appearance of devoted husbands and fathers, yet they have clandestine relations with men while exposing their wives/significant others to risk of diseases. Men who sleep with men, MSMs, are talked about more with little mention of women who may be the unsuspecting causalities of the subculture goings-on.
One such case of a man living a ‘straight life’ was reported recently in Wisconsin. Sadly, his wife and son were told by medical staff of his AIDS diagnosis while he was in the hospital obtaining care. This disclosure forced him to reveal he had been sleeping with men.
The living straight charade was also portrayed in Tyler Perry’s movie adaptation of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. The character played by Janet Jackson discovers that an illness she thought was just a cold or stress was instead HIV. To her dismay, she learns she was infected by her husband who was sleeping with men. The unsettling aspect of his explanation was his insistence he was not gay because he only sleeps with the men, he is not in an actual relationship with them and he is the dominate one within the encounters…meaning he is the one who’s in the position of ‘entering’ the other man.
The CDC reports that the high percentage of Black women who are newly diagnosed with HIV is attributed to their involvement in heterosexual relationships. It is highly suspected that their significant others cheat on them, whether with other women or men, and then return home and infect them. In the case of men secretly sleeping with men, the likelihood of them getting HIV is increased because they typically are in denial about their behavior, thus not taking the proper precautions to protect themselves.
It is not known if Clash’s private activities with other men began before, during or after his marriage to his wife. But it is known that those men who do live the double lives of being in male-female relationships and secretly creeping with men put the lives of women and the community as a whole in jeopardy. Unbeknownst to the women, their assumingly monogamous relationships are just farces. The wall of security comes crashing down when the game of Russian roulette changes their lives forever with the realization of HIV/AIDS.
It may be surprising to some to know that according to an August 2012 report by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, more than one out of every three Black MSMs in Milwaukee County is HIV-positive. Additionally between 2007 – 2011, Black women in Milwaukee County were diagnosed with HIV at a rate 27 times higher compared to white women.
With these startling statistics in mind, it is vitally important that women do all they can to protect themselves from this threat. Ask the right questions. Demand truthful answers. Don’t ignore the clues. Just as vital is the need for men to own up to what their preferences are and exit the subculture life that all too often leads to deadly consequences. The maybe gay, maybe not game is putting far too many lives at risk for the human immunodeficiency virus. This is just one piece of the HIV/AIDS epidemic that must be eradicated.
Clarene Mitchell has over twenty years of print journalism and health disparities advocacy experience. Mrs. Mitchell also works as a program manager for a medical school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.