This article originally appeared in The Body.
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 Latino 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.
Plus: 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!
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? 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."
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? 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.
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? 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.