Confronting taboos: The low-down on the down low

Last April 16, it was business as usual at Kenneth Coles' Market Street hair salon. While customers waited on the cream leather couch for their turns under Coles' sought-after scissors, they watched The Oprah Winfrey Show on the salon's three-monitor TV system.

Oprah's guest was J.L. King, author of On the Down Low, a controversial expos̩ disclosing how African-American males who have sex with menРbut who would never call themselves gayРare transmitting HIV/AIDS to their unsuspecting wives and girlfriends. In fact, Oprah revealed, black women account for 72 percent of new female AIDS cases.

"I was just blown away by the numbers of African-American women who were infected and affected by this behavior," Coles recalls. "And I said to whoever was in the shop that day, 'We have got to talk about this! We have got to have a town meeting!' "

Raising his voice comes naturally to Coles, 48, who grew up in an extended Charlottesville family known as much for its community involvement as for its famed gospel singing. In the past, Coles has opened his salon– which he jokingly calls "the salounge"– to events ranging from Virginia Festival of the Book readings to his own concerts benefiting charities like the American Kidney Foundation.

Coles displayed King's book in the shop and started talking "with every client who's in the chair" about the issue, which led him to expand his plan. "I said, 'You know what? Let's do more than just have a meeting! Let's get this guy here.' "

Sponsored by Coles, King comes to Charlottesville for a Q & A discussion on HIV/AIDS on September 18. With buzz building, the stylist realizes his salon will be too small for the anticipated crowd, so he's relocated the free forum, "Out Loud about the Down Low," to an Omni Hotel ballroom.

Despite his impassioned commitment to raising HIV/AIDS awareness, Coles has faced an uphill battle generating backing for King's visit. He acknowledges people often misinterpret the "down low" issue as just another criticism of black men. And he points out that within the African-American community, "homosexuality is just not talked about."

"It's hard to even get ministers to get involved," Coles says. "They always have 'something else to do'."

"It takes an awful lot of courage. They automatically stigmatize you," sympathizes Rosanna Smith, founder of H.O.P.E., Inc. and a supporter of Coles' endeavor. "But Kenneth says, 'I don't care– it's about saving people's lives.' "

As Coles continues to beat the drum for King's visit, printing fliers and soliciting donations, he's already planning his next event: a vocal performance in December to benefit AIDS groups.

"It's not just a black male thing," Coles says. "It's a human thing."

Kenneth Coles



Kenneth Coles and Kenneth Coles Salon sponsor "Out Loud about the Down Low," a Q&A presentation featuring J.L. King, at noon on September 18 at the Omni Hotel. 235 W. Main St. 971-8506.