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'' That's actually how I met my current boyfriend.

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I decline his advances, to which he seems genuinely perplexed. '' Don't dress, you know, white.'' William smiles as I climb into his silver Jeep Grand Cherokee, which I take as a good sign.

Before I go back upstairs, I ask him if he normally uses condoms here. Two of William's best friends are in the car with him: Christopher, a thin, boyish 32-year-old with a shaved head, and Rakeem, an outgoing 31-year-old with dreadlocks who asked to be identified by his Muslim name.

But the creation of an organized, underground subculture largely made up of black men who otherwise live straight lives is a phenomenon of the last decade.

Many of the men at Flex tonight -- and many of the black men I met these past months in Cleveland, Atlanta, Florida, New York and Boston -- are on the Down Low, or on the DL, as they more often call it.

He says he's ''an urban black gay man on the DL,'' which he says reflects his comfort with his sexuality but his unwillingness to ''broadcast it.'' People at work don't know he's gay.

His family wouldn't know, either, if a vindictive friend hadn't told them.

He's got this weird power to make boys act really stupid.'' It's easy to see why.

William radiates confidence and control, which serve him well in his daytime role as an executive at a local corporation.

Christopher moved to Atlanta when he was 24 and was surprised when black men in the city couldn't get enough of him.

'' They would hit on me at the grocery store, on the street, on the train, always in this sly, DL kind of way where you never actually talk about what you're really doing,'' he says.

Others will let you in if you look ''black enough,'' which is code for looking masculine, tough and ''straight.'' That's not to say that DL guys are attracted only to men of color. By the lockers, I notice a tall black man in his late teens or early 20's staring at me from a dozen lockers down. Bathhouse courtship rituals usually involve a period of aggressive flirtation -- often heavy and deliberate staring. '' I ask him.'' Nah, man,'' he says. You look like you would have a girl, too.'' I tell him that I don't have a girl. I told him I was a writer, and he eventually agreed to take me around to a few clubs in Atlanta.