“For a lot of queer people, the idea of home is clouded with mixed emotions. For Black people, the idea of home is even more complicated.”
It has never been a more apt time for Dyllón Burnside to share his story.
The actor, who rose to fame with his role as Ricky Evangelista on Pose, is celebrating the 2020 Pride season with the PBS short-form series Prideland, which follows the star as he explores modern day life of the LGBTQ+ community in the American South.
Dyllón, who hails from the South, initially boarded the project as the host slash interviewer. As Prideland developed, he came to the realisation that he couldn’t return to his roots without retracing his own personal, yet complicated history.
“It was a great eye-opening opportunity for me to not only retell the narrative of what’s happening in the South for all the viewers, but it was an opportunity for me to retell the story of myself and what home is,” Dyllón tells GAY TIMES.
“People may actually have something to gain from hearing my story. If I can help someone process their pain or process the things that they’ve gone through, I can be a little bit more vulnerable. It’s the work that I’ve always signed up to do.”
To commemorate the release of Prideland’s one-hour special, which is available to stream 12 June on all PBS platforms, we spoke with Dyllón about the insightful new series, the importance of allies voicing support for the Black Lives Matter movement, and why it’s imperative for the LGBTQ+ community to remember the true spirit of Pride.
How long has this documentary been in the works for? Is this something you’ve always wanted to do?
I never really had this idea specifically, but everything that I’ve been doing up until this point has allowed me to do this kind of work. That has been a blessing. I’ve always been naturally curious, and as a kid I asked so many questions. I studied journalism and documentary courses in college. With my advocacy work and all of my experiences, it just naturally put me in position to be able to execute the work that this piece asked me to do.
You were raised in the South and you return to your roots for the series – was this hard for you to do on a personal level?
I’m a bit of a momma’s boy, so I visit my mom as often as I can. Coming back for Prideland was a bit different. I was not just coming back to the comfort of my mother’s home, I was coming and visiting places that I’d never been and talking about things that I don’t always talk about when I’m in the South. It was very uncomfortable. I also visited my home town in Pensacola, Florida, and it was really beautiful to go back after all these years. It also brought up some of my history and I had to revisit some things from my past. Overall, it was a great eye-opening opportunity for me to not only retell the narrative of what’s happening in the South for all the viewers, but it was an opportunity for me to retell the story of myself and what home is. For a lot of queer people, the idea of home is clouded with mixed emotions. For Black people, the idea of home is even more complicated. As the world watches the United States struggle with the issue of racism, feeling like you are “at home” as a Black person in this country is not always something that we feel. Add being queer to that, you also feel like an orphan and without a home to go to. The process of working on Prideland has really helped me work through some of the things that I have faced on my journey to sort of reconcile what home can be for me.
Did you have any hesitations going into this documentary? Like you said, it’s not only exploring America’s attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community, but it’s exploring your story.
Absolutely. One of the great things about being an actor is that you can hide behind other people’s stories. You sort of get to have an emotional relief from the pain you experience in your life through someone else’s story, instead of telling your own. I definitely had hesitation about it and I almost didn’t do it, but we had a lot of conversations. Initially when we started talking about Prideland, it was just going to be about other people’s stories and I was going to be the interviewer. As I was talking to the producers, having meetings about who we were going to interview, I started telling them about what I had gone through. They expressed how similar the journeys were, and Jon [Reynaga] said to me, ‘How do you feel about telling your story throughout this?’ I thought, ‘Whoa whoa whoa. This is not what I signed up for!’ But I thought it through, prayed on it and decided that people may actually have something to gain from hearing my story. If I can help someone process their pain or process the things that they’ve gone through, I can be a little bit more vulnerable. It’s the work that I’ve always signed up to do.
The documentary also highlights parts of the LGBTQ+ community that are often left out of discussions such as asexuality and polyamorous relationships. How important is it to bring these issues to the spotlight?
So important! Like I said before, I’m such a naturally curious person. These are the conversations that I love to have. Particularly in that episode when we are having those conversations about relationships, those are the conversations that I have in my living room with my friends all the time, or if I’m with my therapist. If I don’t know people that have these experiences, then when I’m with those people, I will ask questions to expand my worldview. I was so grateful to be able to sit down with people from several different walks of life and learn from them. Being queer doesn’t mean that you have all experienced sexuality, identity or gender in the same way. Being trans, being gay, being bi – that means different things to everybody. People experience their queerness, their transness, their gayness or their Blackness in so many different ways. It was really important for me to showcase that.
LGBTQ+ people are being disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, and one of the reasons is fear of discrimination in healthcare. In episode five, you speak with two doctors at the Center for LGBTQ Health at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. Did you learn anything in particular about how can we tackle that issue?
We need to be more intentional about our outreach and funding. Funding needs to be more intentional so that everybody in this country has affordable healthcare. I’m really passionate about it, and I say this as someone who does not currently have health insurance, which is a whole sticky situation that I’m fighting with my insurance company right now. The clinic that I visited in Mississippi don’t have the funding to support the people who are still most vulnerable within the LGBTQ+ community. So, all of the trans and queer kids and people of colour who need treatment don’t have access to it, because they may not have health insurance or the funds to pay for it out of pocket. To your point about LGBTQ+ people being largely impacted by the coronavirus, sure there’s a piece of it that has to do with not wanting to be stigmatised, but the other piece of that is: you have people who can’t access it simply because healthcare in this country is a luxury. It’s criminal that healthcare in this country is not a right. Everyone should have access to affordable healthcare and it needs to be fixed. As impressed as I was with the work they were doing in that clinic, I was also disheartened by the fault in our system and how capitalism is keeping people who are the most vulnerable from being able to have access to a clinic like that. That’s what I learned from it.
We’re going into Pride Month, and it’s important for everyone to remember that LGBTQ+ rights were fought for by queer people of colour – how important is it that allies of the Black community speak up, voice support for the Black Lives Matter movement and to do all they can to dismantle racism?
It is imperative that allies speak up. The movement for LGBTQ+ rights was founded upon the protests and so-called “riots” of Black and Brown trans folk. Seeing what’s going on in the world right now, we must realise that the only reason we have the rights and the freedom that we have today is because people literally got out into the streets and risked their lives. That’s not me promoting violence, and that’s not me saying I want to burn buildings, but what I’m recognising is the anger and hopelessness that people feel. I’m recognising and validating the righteousness in the steps that are being taken. As a Black man, there’s no way that I can enter Pride Month and ignore all of the stuff that’s going on. I hope that all queer folks will enter Pride Month and not ignore what’s going on right now, but will fight and stand as allies with the Black Lives Matter movement. I hope they support by donating, getting out and protesting, speaking up and talking to your friends and families about what is going on… It is not just on Black people to end racism. Black people have been fighting racism forever, and Black people won’t end it on their own. It’ll take the rest of the world – white people – deciding when they want to end racism and white supremacy.
Some people are refraining from speaking up because they think it doesn’t affect them or they feel like they’ll say the wrong thing, but it’s imperative that everyone speaks up. It’s not an option to say silent.
You can’t stay silent. Your silence makes you complicit. By being silent, you are perpetuating the status quo. By being silent, you are saying that all of the senseless killing of Black folks at the hands of police is right. By being silent, you stand with them. This is also affecting queer people. Tony McDade, a Black trans man, was just killed last week in Tallahassee, Florida. We see Black trans women murdered in the street too many times to count. This is an issue that affects us all. Those people that are dying, I look at them and think, ‘That could be me. That could be any one of my cast members. That could be any of the folks that are fighting for the freedoms that queer people around the world have.’
Prides all over the world have been cancelled this year due to the coronavirus pandemic – how important is it for the community to keep the spirit of Pride alive?
People might be offended that I’m going to say this, but I’m actually glad that Pride in the way that we have come to understand it is cancelled. I love a good celebration. I love a good party. But, I think that our current circumstances are going to allow us to get clearer about what the actual spirit of Pride is. To answer, how do we keep the spirit of Pride alive? I think we need to get clear about what that spirit is. When we are clear that Pride is about celebrating our beauty and authenticity, celebrating the journey that our community has been on in all of the years up until this point, while also recognising and being clear about the things we wanna move forward with in the coming years, then I think there’s no reason to be dismayed about not being able to go to a parade or a party. Sure, we are all disappointed and longing to be with one another… I miss my friends so much, but I think we have to move forward from where we are and look at the context – Pride isn’t cancelled this year. We still get to be our beautiful authentic selves, and we still get to be all of those things and celebrate our history and accomplishments. I’m actually glad that this will focus us, so we can come together again in 2021 and beyond. It would be that much more meaningful and exciting.
I can see your point of view. Some members of the LGBTQ+ community are unaware of the Stonewall Riots, Marsha P. Johnson, Storm DeLarverie and how we got our rights today. LGBTQ+ lessons were, and still are, non-existent in schools, but…
Yeah, and I think it’s on us too. I think it’s on the people who are being engaged with the Pride celebrations and the media. It’s important for us to figure out how we make space to talk about those things during Pride Month. That’s what I mean when I say that I’m happy Pride events are cancelled. It’s not that I’m glad they’re cancelled, that’s not what I mean at all. I mean that it’s forcing us to engage with the idea of Pride in a different way, forcing us to engage with Pride Month in a more intentional and thoughtful way, getting to the heart of what it is about and not being lost in the distractions of the celebrations. I love the celebration of it and I don’t want that to get lost, but I think the spirit of why we’re celebrating gets lost. I think the coronavirus pandemic as a whole has really highlighted that for me. It’s helping me get centred, focused and to weed out the distractions, realise where I can trim the fat in my life. I’m hoping that we can still find ways to connect with one another. I’m having a special Instagram Live Pride event on 11 June, the day before the Prideland special airs on PBS. Myself and a bunch of my fabulous friends are getting together to celebrate, talk and connect. That’s my way of doing exactly what I just laid out for you there. That’s my way of connecting my viewers with the spirit of Pride – one of them anyway.
Prideland airs every Tuesday on PBS Voices. The one-hour special premieres 12 June on PBS at 9pm ET.
Dyllón will also celebrate the start of Pride Month by hosting a virtual converation series with his friends and influential community leaders on 11 June at 6pm ET/3pm PT on Instagram Live at @dyllonburnside.