Zakia McKensey, a local performer and advocate, uses the spotlight to destigmatize HIV
In 1969, protests over the treatment of the queer community by police came after The Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City, was raided. The ensuing rebellion has become a rallying point for LGBTQ+ rights.
To mark the anniversary of those events, VPM News is highlighting some of the queer leaders in Richmond whose work has had a direct impact on the lives of other LGBTQ+ Virginians.
When Zakia McKensey takes the stage as her drag persona, Zakia Jemaceye, she uses the spotlight to educate the community.
But before she turned to the business of saving lives, McKensey takes a moment to drink in the roaring applause of the crowd and launches into the opening lines of “Give Me Body” by Queen Latifah. Sweeping around the stage and through the crowd, McKensey seems untouchable, her elegant frame atop high heels and towering over the crowd. Onlookers shout to each other over the music that both her performance and style is immaculate.
They cheer long after the song concludes.
Following her performance, however, McKensey becomes more earnest and slips out of character. She shouts over the crowd with a voice that draws attention from those at the back of the venue and begins her well-rehearsed speech advocating for the queer people around her to get tested for HIV.
Looking into their faces, McKensey said she saw a community in danger, one that she’s determined to protect.
“Having that platform to reach so many, I just really was vocal about talking about it,” McKensey told VPM News. “Having a captive audience there in the club of people that needed to get tested and just constantly every show harping — testing, testing, testing … till it became normalized and testing numbers grew, and we were diagnosing folks and getting people into care.”
McKensey began speaking out about HIV on the dance floor, but her advocacy around prevention and treatment has since expanded to the rest of the LGBTQ+ community. In 2012, she started Nationz Foundation, an organization that offers free HIV testing, runs a food pantry and hosts support groups for queer people in the Richmond area.
For trans women, in particular, these services are sorely needed. According to the CDC, 42% of 1,608 transgender women the agency interviewed in 2019 and early 2020 said they had HIV. Black transgender women had the highest rate of HIV among that group, with 62% saying they had tested positive for the virus. Gay men also represent a disproportionate number of HIV cases in the U.S. The CDC reported in 2018 that 81% of men who contracted HIV had sexual contact with another man beforehand.
In 2019, the most recent year for which data is available, 1.2 million people were estimated to be infected with HIV. That represents about 0.36% of the country’s total population.
Stigma around HIV in LGBTQ+ communities is one of the major reasons for these disparities, according to CDC research. McKensey said by spreading information about treatment and testing for the virus, her organization is working to combat that.
Before she became a leader in the LGBTQ+ community, McKensey said she first relied on their support to survive. Her introduction to Richmond’s queer scene came when she was 17. After coming out as gay and being kicked out of her home by her mother, she was taken in by the Snows, a group of young queer entertainers who became McKensey’s chosen family.
In drag, families are created when a drag queen or king takes another performer under their wing. Those people become “drag mothers” or “drag fathers,” and their other “drag children” become one’s sisters and brothers. Especially when ball culture was prevalent in the ’80s during the AIDS crisis, members of these families would often pool their resources to pay for housing and other necessities.
“They were really big on us, especially me, staying in school. And they really kept us off the streets and made sure that we didn't get into survival sex work,” McKensey said, discussing her chosen family. “They really instilled in us the entertainment aspect [of drag] and how we could make money from entertaining on stage or in clubs versus being out on the streets and getting hooked on drugs. It was nine of us; we were fending for each other. When we would do shows, we would put our money in to make sure that the bills were paid or to get dinner. And it was difficult. But it also was very fun.”
'Under her wing'
McKensey honed her drag skills over time and said she eventually realized that inhabiting a feminine persona for the stage spoke more to their true identity than the label of a gay man. After meeting Mercedes Seville — a drag queen and transgender woman — McKensey said she was ready to come out of the closet again.
“Mercedes took me under her wing, and Mercedes became like my other mom, and taught me about pageantry and makeup and taught me how to sew. And really was a huge support for me,” McKensey said.
In 2000, Seville died of AIDS. McKensey said because of the stigma around the virus, she wasn’t there for her friend toward the end of her life. The guilt that caused led to her current advocacy work.
“When she really became ill, I didn't really do what … I was supposed to do as a friend. Because I wasn't educated on it. And so, I stayed away from her. And I later regretted it very much. Because there were a lot of times that I couldn't pay my bills or I didn't have anything to eat, and Mercedes made sure that I ate or that I had the money,” McKensey said.
McKensey started volunteering at the Fan Free Clinic, which offered medical care to low-income people in Richmond, in 2001. Then in 2004, McKensey helped establish one of the first health clinics for transgender people in the commonwealth.
“When we started it, I had to learn how to be a phlebotomist, to draw blood. I also learned how to administer hormone replacement therapy, the shots for testosterone. I was the front desk person,” McKensey said. “I did what I had to do so that the program would work.”
The clinic, which is now called Health Brigade, still offers transgender healthcare services and HIV testing. Since McKensey’s program began, Virginia’s Planned Parenthood also implemented a gender-affirming health program that still exists today.
Transgender clients from all over Virginia and the surrounding states came to McKensey’s clinic for care, and soon she accumulated a client list of thousands of people. In 2010, McKensey transitioned to working for the Richmond and Henrico Health Districts. There, she said, she repeatedly experienced transphobia from other city employees, and her proposals for directly reaching the queer community to perform HIV testing were discouraged.
“I worked on the fourth floor. And so, there were people who had issues with me using the bathroom on the fourth floor. And they suggested that I go all the way to the second floor, to a bathroom that wasn't marked with a gender. And I refused,” McKensey said.
Cat Long, public information officer for the Richmond and Henrico Health Districts, said their records of HR incidents are not kept longer than five years.
“Richmond and Henrico Health Districts believe Ms. McKensey's negative experiences with transphobia during her time here and apologize for her experience. Being permitted to use the restroom that aligns with a person's gender identity without risk of judgment or harassment is a basic right that everyone should have,” Long said.
Instead of being defeated, McKensey turned her frustration into action. She quit her position and began working to make a mobile testing unit available at queer clubs in the city, eventually expanding to surrounding areas.
Long said after McKensey quit, the district held several all-staff trainings on better serving LGBTQ+ people in 2016, as well as a training on trans-affirming healthcare for their clinical services team in 2019. That year, they also started an internal workgroup focused on establishing health equity among LGBTQ+ communities.
With the help of her cousin Dwayne Williams, McKensey said, she took a leap of faith in creating Nationz Foundation. At first, the nonprofit hosted drag competitions to raise money and awareness for their services, but soon the organization was able to move beyond the stage and more directly into the community.
Their club outreach has been paused during the COVID-19 pandemic. But prior to that, Nationz Foundation would regularly appear outside queer clubs in Richmond to offer on-site testing. They would park an RV near the entrance of the venue, and inside, McKensey said, she would counsel people on accessing free services and resources. Today, the group partners with the city and other local organizations to bring testing directly to other populations in need, especially people living in poverty.
“We go everywhere,” McKensey said. “When we started, we would go to this particular place right on Chamberlayne and Brooklyn Park Boulevard that is still one of our major testing areas. We have relationships with Richmond City Health District and all of their resource centers. So, in Mosby Court, Whitcomb Court — all the courts — Creighton, we offer testing.”
The organization’s RV is also used as a mobile food bank, bringing supplies directly to communities in need. In addition to their mobile services, Nationz Foundation occupies an office space along Finlay Street in Richmond where they conduct testing, connect clients with resources like job training and trans-affirming care, and hold support groups for LGBTQ+ people, regardless of their HIV status.
Those offices are adorned with bright, welcoming messages of trans pride. The walls are cramped with posters from past events, and there are free condoms at the reception desk. The space feels like home, according to Charnetta Lee.
“We're a small organization, but we're tightknit. And it doesn't feel like a job … . [E]veryone here has a story and a reason that they're doing what they're doing,” Lee said.
Lee began as a volunteer at Nationz, but now serves as its director of community outreach. Lee became interested in HIV prevention and treatment when she found out that her mother died of AIDS. Lee said she was moved to join the organization after hearing a speech by McKensey in 2017.
“It was the passion. Once she started speaking on what she wanted to do, you could just see the vision in her eyes,” Lee said. “It's just the drive that she has and the passion that she has for what she does; the love that she has for what she does.”
Lee, who is cisgender, said it’s clear that Nationz is providing a significant service to its transgender and nonbinary clients.
“You can just see how people need that community,” Lee said. “People need to be around like-minded people and people that you can feed off of and learn from, and it's pretty cool.”
Nationz Foundation also offers a service where people can text requests for condoms, lubricants, safe sex items and HIV testing. The items then are delivered to clients. They also have a computer lab, as well as job training programs, professional clothes to borrow and mindfulness classes for clients.
During her drag career, McKensey has advocated for the end of the stigma around HIV, and done so on a national stage. She’s held the titles of Miss Gay Black America, Miss Black National, Miss International Supermodel, Miss Godfrey’s and Miss Virginia Capitol Pride. She’s still performing, but McKensey said she’s about to wind down the career she’s pursued since she was a teenager.
“I'm getting ready to wrap that part of my life up, because I've really been competing and entertaining since I was 16. I'm just getting tired,” McKensey said.
Her work as a leader in Richmond’s queer community is far from over, though. On behalf of Mercedes Seville, her late friend, and all the queer people who have lost their lives to HIV, McKensey said she’s continuing to support her community — especially other trans women.
“It takes a lot of strength for us to be able to walk in that truth,” McKensey said. “And at the end of the day, all we want is just the same things that everybody else wants. We want love, we want peace. We want to be able to thrive and make a good living for ourselves and also be safe.”