As he was already the spokesmodel for the D.C. PrEP Squad Campaign, I knew Jacen Zhu was interested in educating and mobilizing gay men around HIV prevention. An adult film model helping to promote pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) in the LGBTQ community is great, but not unexpected. But it was his admission on Twitter to struggling with crystal meth -- with a video confessional -- posted in early March that caught my attention. As more attention is being paid to black and Latinx queer men who have become addicted to meth, Zhu is taking it a step further than just discussing his own use. He's launching a campaign, #TakedownTina, to do more to educate and empower queer men of color who need support with addiction to substances. TheBody sat down with Zhu to discuss his newfound activism.
Kenyon Farrow: How did you get from your career, modeling and gay adult films, to the point of now being identified as an activist?
Jacen Zhu: I just started noticing more and more people on Grindr and Scruff and Jack'd, apps and things like that, having keywords like party with a capital-T, or like the diamonds in their profiles, or TNT. And before, when I was using, people were typically Caucasian. This time around, they were looking like me and they were my age.
So, I was like, "You know what? I'm not going to just sit around here and watch this happen." Because it would be shame on me for being someone who has gone through that process, and has somewhat of a platform, to keep my mouth quiet. So, I decided to just start talking about it on Twitter and kind of start my healing process for myself but also for other people.
I was just honestly just speaking the truth, you know, about what I was seeing. Somehow, I guess, people resonated with that, and it has been going on. And here I am today!
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KF: I saw that initial statement, I think, on Twitter, when you first talked about your own struggles. What has the response been from people since you've disclosed that information and decided to take on this work?
JZ: It's been all over the place, to be honest. I had a lot of people saying, "Oh, black people -- or especially black men -- don't do crystal meth and everything like that."
And I was like: "Well, that's not true. Here are the examples of why." And so, when I started to explain to them -- "X, Y, Z: Look at this profile. This is how you can tell that this person was probably someone who was using" -- the lightbulbs started to come on, and they started to become more aware.
From some people in the Caucasian community, they always want to kind of flip the narrative and try to make it inclusive for everyone. And I said, you know, "Yes, drugs are an issue for society as a whole." But the reason why I want to focus on our queer people of color is that Caucasian people have the campaign Kill Meth, and we were not really included in that. It was because we were not known to be users of crystal meth.
Therefore, that subgroup and that culture are aware of it. We, as queer people of color, we're not aware of it because it's not something that we had any real knowledge of. And if we do have knowledge of it, it's something that we think about being in rural areas. You know, you see the running jokes about what crystal meth looks like. And you have examples of Breaking Bad, and things of that nature.
So, there are no depictions of us, and so I had a lot of pushback with people saying, "Oh, it should be including of everyone because it's a problem."
And I'm like: "Well, yes, that is true. But right now, the problem in the queer, people-of-color community, it is actually in a place where it's dangerous. And we need to act now."
KF: It's almost as if crystal meth use went away. And it didn't. And there is, I think, some data that it actually has increased, more than it has gone away. So, how do you think about what's happening in the media and trying to get your message out about abuse of crystal meth in the middle of the conversation about the opioid crisis, which is kind of dominating the press?
JZ: That's what people will try to send my way. And I always tell them; I say: "Well, if I must be honest, heroin was a problem since my mother was a baby. So, it's not unfamiliar to my community because it has always been an epidemic." I don't know a society without someone being addicted to heroin.
So now, Americans have flipped, and now that we have people taking prescription drugs, and now that is how they're finding their gateway into heroin, and now we see it as this, quote, "epidemic." It has always been like that for us.
I do understand that drugs, the overall umbrella of drugs, is an issue. But this one needs urgent help, right now.
KF: What do you think? Now, you're doing this work as an activist and having also gone through your own struggles, what do you think are some of the reasons why crystal meth use is rising among queer men of color in particular?
JZ: Speaking for myself, I am HIV positive. I have been HIV positive since the age of 16. And I know that there are others out in the community that were diagnosed around that -- it was the 2005 to 2007 -- window. And a lot of us have been just running from our circumstances and trying to navigate through life.
We have not really developed a self-worth for who we are. And so, we find ourselves just keeping on running this race to try to figure out who we are. We keep on changing that and developing. I feel as though, for a lot of us, it takes a while to get comfortable with our status. Even when you say to yourself, "I accept my status," it's different saying it than actually being comfortable in it. And people don't realize that until they get a little further on this journey and something happens in life, and they're awakened to realize that.
But we don't know our self-worth because people stigmatize us. And especially black men, and in the black queer community, it's really difficult to date and be honest and open about your status, honestly. And it's unfortunate, because people will judge you. And it's a lot of stigma and a lot of jokes about it that are harmful to people's self-esteem and self-worth. I think that's really where people are just running for a place to be accepted. And they want to feel appreciated.
And so, when you get into these groups of people who are using crystal meth, it's such an accepting group. What they don't realize is that, because you are seeing all varieties of people -- young, old, black, white, straight, gay, whatever you identify with -- it is not that these people are accepting you; it's that they're accepting the fact that you are a part of this drug.
JZ: It is unfortunate because, when you keep on trying to be a part of something so toxic, it destroys you. And it takes a while for us to go back and be self-accepting and self-aware that, "Hey, you know what? No matter what other people think about me, or how they feel about me, I do love myself." And I'm not saying I love myself; I feel that I love myself. And I know my worth, and I know who I am as a person.
KF: Tell me now about #TakedownTina. I've noticed that hashtag you've been using on social media.
JZ: I started this initiative. I think just randomly I was joking around, and when I was seeing all this stuff, I was like, "We've got to take down Tina."
And everyone was just like, "I kind of like that."
I continued with the hashtag. Right now, it's still an initiative, but eventually, I do want to make it a nonprofit. But our goal really is to create a society that is bursting with self-acceptance to where the activity of exchanging one's life for drug use becomes undesirable.
I tell people the reason why I say "self-acceptance" is because, when you have that peace of self-acceptance and you are grounded in that, you don't need anything else to heighten who you are. And that's so important for people to understand. It's like, you know, yes, these things are fun, and you can have a great time. But when you're at peace with who you are, and you really accept who you are? You don't need nothing to change that. Because you already feel good, you know? You're already the life of the party. You're already who you need to be. That's what's so important.
So right now, that's our main goal. It's really just getting the word out there, to continue the talking about it, and to get to a nonprofit status. And then, we can spread it out to a larger campaign.
KF: This may reach some people who are themselves currently struggling or who have friends and people in their community who are struggling with crystal meth. I have known friends and had a couple of boyfriends, black gay men that I've dated, who also have struggled with crystal meth use. What's your message to those folks who will read this?
JZ: Yeah. Absolutely. And I apologize; I might get emotional. Because this always gets me, this question. And I'm so sorry.
KF: It's all right. Emotion is all right.
JZ: But I just want to tell people that the drug does not love you. We do. And we really care about you. And we really just want you to come home. Because . . . it's just not worth it. It's really not. And you are a beautiful, beautiful person. And it's OK to make mistakes and understand that you can get back up and be the best person that you can be for yourself. No one is judging you. No one cares about what you've been through, to the point where we're sitting here, saying: "Oh, look at you. You shouldn't have done this."
We don't care about that. We just want to give you some love. Because that's what you need. You need that love. And I know that you've been craving it.
That's really what I want to give to the people -- it's just to give them some love and tell them that they have a place here where they are accepted, where they can be who they want to be and be loved.
And that's it. Yeah.
KF: So, we're in Pride season. You know, a lot of cities will have Pride this weekend. What are some things that you could tell folks who are maybe struggling with crystal meth or other substances, some strategies to keep themselves safe? What are some strategies to support folks when they're out at the club or they're out at Pride, where they're more likely to come across folks who may be using and maybe put themselves at risk of falling off the wagon or do things that may put them at more risk?
JZ: Yeah. I went out and saw a band at a bar in D.C. during Pride. And although I am over 21, I asked the guy at the door, I said, "Can you put _X_s on my hand?"
And he was like, "Are you sure you don't want a drink?"
And I was like: "No. It's a reminder to stay sober." And so, that was me, making a conscious choice to be active in my recovery.
And so, what I tell people is that something so small like that -- putting _X_s on your hand -- really puts you in the mind frame of saying: "Hey, you know what? I'm OK. I don't, I don't require this."
And also, really pay attention to the people around you, and the ones who are intoxicated, and soak up that moment and see that it is OK for you not to be a part of that.
And then next, I will always say to them, is to always have a support team. I have so many people on my support team. Like, if I'm ever feeling a type of way, I pick up a phone, send out a text message -- whatever I need to do so that I can keep my mind clear and not go out and pick up and use. If you're feeling, you know, maybe you've got a little anxiety for going out to this club or whatever, tell somebody. Because it relieves you from that, so once you get out to the club, you're not making poor decisions.
And that's what I had to realize that, for myself, seeking, I downloaded Grindr. And I know for instance, Grindr -- and any of those apps -- are not good for my recovery. Because it's easy for me to reach out to someone and kind of hook back up to the same thing. I might not have the number, but I can connect to him on the app.
And so, not having those apps has freed me from making those choices. I had downloaded the app over the weekend and, you know, started to go down the behavior of hooking up and getting ready to get into that. And I had a moment to pause. Because in that pause I said: "Well, what am I getting out of this? You know, yeah, I'm going to have sex, and it might feel great. But what's next?"
And also, I really encourage people to go to workshops, especially if you're sober -- and even if you're not sober -- go to workshops. Because in those workshops, you really find a lot of information in there that will open your eyes to things, like: "Wow. I've never even thought about it like that."
I always tell people: The people that you see handing out condoms and stuff like that at the Pride events and everything, and you think they're just these crazy old people talking about safe sex here and "Join us" -- everything like that -- they've got stories. And it's a reason why they're there. Latch on to those people.
So, don't have that judgment of thinking, "Oh, that's that crazy old person over there telling me about this." Latch onto them. See what they're about. Because that positive energy is going to trail down to you, to make sure that you stay aligned to what you want to do.
That's my advice for Pride days.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.