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Meet Jacen Zhu, The Queer Porn Star On A Mission To #Takedowntina

When Jacen Zhu first tweeted his mission to #takedowntina he was still using Tina’ – a slang term for crystal meth regularly. He had experimented with chemsex one night and slowly found himself developing an addiction, but it was only when he started to see other young men of color using codewords to score crystal meth on dating apps that he decided to speak out. #takedowntina started as a hashtag, but its now an initiative in its own right. With the help of a fundraiser, Zhu hopes that it could become a non-profit organization complete with a project manager, a fully-functioning website and a series of merchandise designed to spread his message: recovery is possible.

Theres a misconception that all porn stars sell fantasy, but Zhu is unflinchingly honest with his fans on social media. He speaks openly about his experiences as an HIV+ man and educates his audience about preventative drug PrEP (hes also a member of the PrEP Squad) and ART (treatment which can suppress viral loads to undetectablelevels, meaning the virus cannot be transmitted), breaking difficult terminology down into easy, digestible bites.

Hes just as warm, honest and open when I call him. He might be preparing for a panel discussion, but he gives his full attention to every answer: from sexual racism and social media to chemsex and the #AllLivesMatter brigade, Zhu shies away from nothing when speaking about his own experiences. He knows his visibility is vital for queer people worldwide struggling with similar issues, and so he lays himself bare to eradicate the silent crystal meth epidemicstill weighing disproportionately heavily on queer and trans communities of color.

First of all, tell me about Takedown Tina — how did that come about?

I actually tweeted the hashtag when I was still using, because I was seeing queer people of color my age on dating apps using codewords for crystal meth. I knew #takedowntina could get peoples attention, but I initially had no idea what I wanted it to be. Over the course of recovery and getting that information out there I realized people were reaching out to me, specifically black men talking about similar experiences, so I had the idea to run this as an initiative.

It was about education, because people still dont believe that people of color – particularly within black and Latinx communities – and people of trans experience are using crystal meth. My goal was really to spread awareness of that silent epidemic within QTPoC communities, to plant the seeds of recovery and to promote the idea of sober fun to people who might just think it sounds boring!

In that sense, do you think your porn background is actually a strength? You can literally show sober fun on-screen, and it makes it more accessible.

Yes. People ask if I regret doing porn and I say no, because it forced me to get sober. People were seeing me and following me on social media, and that attention forced me to make a decision: do you want to be a drug user for the rest of your life, or do you want to come out on the other side? I chose to come out on the other side because I have a platform, and not only do I talk about addiction, I talk about the mental health side effects of recovery and about living undetectably as an HIV+ man. People find comfort in having these conversations with me, so Im grateful to be able to reach people especially people that look like me, because we do have a hard time.

We know now that HIV+ people can live undetectably and that drugs like PrEP (sometimes known by its brand name Truvada) can protect against transmission even if someone is detectable. Do you think the stigma is starting to disappear?

Within the Caucasian community. But within communities of color? No. Were just starting to get involved with PrEP, so the idea that U=U (undetectable = untransmittable) isnt being talked about as much. Were so far behind, and there are lots of POC that come from religious backgrounds and have to deal with that stigma within their families. Because were a marginalized community we can be like crabs in a barrel, so we have to start being more open and honest with each other. Also, stigma is even written into words like clean,so its not going anywhere overnight, but were in it for the long haul.

We live in the age of callout culture pulling people up can make them feel attacked. Can that make it difficult to get through to people?

Yes, but when I speak to people Im honest about the fact that Ive made transphobic comments in the past, and that I grew and learned it wasnt right. My favorite sayings are I encourage you…”, or “Be mindful,” because I want people to understand that Ive been like that in the past too.

As someone with a public platform, has it been difficult to speak about your experiences?

Yes, but for the most part feedback is positive because I try to create that space. I always find that when people of color have something to say, white people will say: What about me, too?

I get that. I got that a lot when I was talking about a crystal meth epidemic amongst POC. People would say: “But drugs affect everyone!Yes, but right now were talking about how many lives are being lost within communities of color. We arent saying drugs dont affect everyone, but the opiate crisis has always been a crisis for POC. Theres been a war waged against and [POC] have been given higher sentences, but now people call it an epidemicbecause people that dont look like us are being affected. We need to have these realistic conversations, so I tell people they need to check their ego and realize that its not about them as a person, its about society at large.

Do you get backlash for talking about other issues as well?

I get it when I talk about black models, in particular, being fetishized in gay porn. People dont use us like we should be used or give us the light we deserve; its only great when its all about BBC. The industry sometimes isnt willing to accept it, but I tell people Im not doing it for me – if I can help the next generation of black porn stars then I feel like Ive done my part.

Does it ever feel difficult to challenge the porn industry from within?

Sometimes. Some people – and I dont think they mean any harm – are just so used to performers agreeing to things. Im not a person that will agree to something I think is problematic; Ill tell you, and then we can work out a different way. A lot of people dont want to do that, so my opinion is really that its time for fresh blood in the industry. If you look at web series theyre giving a more realistic perspective on whats going on in the world and theyre having sex!

We often see research that shows that POC are more likely to suffer mental health issues or struggle with addiction. From your own experiences of working within communities of color, do these statistics ring true?

Yes, and it speaks to the society we live in. POC dont feel comfortable talking about mental health because we are marginalized, so the attitude can be suck it up, move on.Especially QTPOC – a large percentage are living in poverty, so theyre more concerned with finding warmth, shelter and somewhere to shower. I think that plays a large role. Its also about access to mental health services, and specifically about finding someone that looks like you and that actually makes you feel comfortable. A lot of these places dont pay well so theres high employee turnover, and the idea of telling someone new your story each week just doesnt work for some people.

Do you think theres still a tendency to trivialize mental health issues as well?

I do, and it can be as simple as using words like crazy.’ A porn colleague of mine shared a meme of  [Family Guys] Stewie Griffin in a padded cell, so I had to say: Hey, were trying to get away from that image because it creates a barrier which stops people accessing care.People need to be mindful, but they want to say whatever they want. I say to people: Youve had decades to be an asshole, now were in year one of political correctness and you feel like people are trying to take that away from you?

Obviously, Tina is heavily linked to chemsex. Do you find thats a common route to addiction?

Thats how I got started. One day I went home with a couple after the bar, and I saw them doing the drug but I thought I would just smoke pot and drink. All it took was that one curious moment, and then bam! I really do think in those moments were more likely to do something we wouldnt normally do.

Do you think porn is being overlooked as a tool to make positive change in that sense?

Yes. If Im being honest, there are a percentage of porn stars who either suffer with or are recovering from addiction, and they dont talk about it because theyre trying to promote a fantasy. I understand that, but as porn stars, I feel we have an obligation to spread messages to our viewers and to allow them to see us as human beings.

On that note, what advice would you give to anyone reading this who’s struggling with any of the issues HIV stigma, addiction that youve faced?

It sounds cliché, but I would honestly say that it does get better. It will take time and work, and youll ask yourself what the point of getting sober is because youll have to start dealing with your demons. But one day maybe not today! youll look back with joy that youre no longer engaging in that lifestyle. It will make you so happy!

Also, have the conversation. Talking really sparked my journey to recovery, and I wouldnt change it for the world because drugs didnt give me anything other than a temporary high. You might feel like youve done something that makes you a bad person, but theres a community waiting for you that doesnt care. They really just want to love you, accept you and become a part of your life.

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