'Pose' Star Dyllón Burnside on Identity, Family, and Love

'Pose' Star Dyllón Burnside on Identity, Family, and Love

Talking with Dyllón Burnside, it doesn't take long to discover how much is on his mind. It's the day after the New York season two premiere event for Pose, the zeitgeist-shifting show by Ryan Murphy he stars on, and Burnside's schedule is invariably packed. The second season's first episode attracted record viewership, and Posehas been renewed for a third season — a testament to the timeliness of its storyline and the explosive demand for FX's historic drama about ball culture in 1980s New York.

Pose and his familial connections with the cast have Burnside thinking about identity. He moved to New York in 2012 to study acting, a longtime dream realized after a life spent trying to conform to ideas he was raised with regarding masculinity. Now, alongside five trans women and queer people of color as leads, Burnside stars in an award-winning show as Ricky, a young Black gay dancer and street kid who eventually finds home in the House of Evangelista. The show takes place and is filmed in New York City, and like Ricky finding his chosen family, in real life, Burnside walks to set from his Harlem apartment and bonds with his co-stars Billy Porter, Mj Rodriguez, Dominique Jackson and Indya Moore everyday.

I ask Burnside — a 30-year-old rising stage, television, and film actor, singer, film producer, and youth advocate who speaks at schools about the importance of accessing performance as a means of self-expression — how being on a show like Pose has shaped him, and it's impossible for him not to dive into what came before. What came before is years of attempting to achieve full self-expression while grappling with his identity as a Black queer man. Where he is now is empowered, totally authentic, and committed to fueling productive conversations like those Pose has facilitated.

"When people talk about the show with their families, if sexuality comes up or out, I'd like for people to focus less on what's going on between people with genitals," he says. "The emphasis should be placed on what their experience is, what their experience in the world is, and what their experience in the community is. Talking about experiences is what I think is the most important. So, when I have a conversation with my uncle about who I am, that is a conversation about my experience."

Below, Burnside shares more on Pose Season Two, where he's come from, and where he's headed:

I have so much I'd like to ask you. I know that part of your story involves breaking free from toxic masculinity. How has being on Pose helped you in that journey?

That is a journey that started years ago. I grew up in Northwest Florida in a town called Pensacola, just 15 minutes from the Alabama state line. As you can imagine it's pretty conservative. My family is very invested in the practice of masculinity. For example, my uncle, who is my surrogate father, is a professional boxer. It's a loving family, but I definitely was raised with all of the conditions of what it means to be a man's man.

I trained in boxing. I played football and basketball and baseball, every sport. I ran cross country. I also raised cows, pigs, dogs, and chickens. Early chores involved feeding horses and such — all a very masculine type of living. I loved it, but on the other hand, I wanted to explore the arts. I loved music, dance, fashion, beautiful architecture, culture. My family really embraced my artistic side as a musician and they really helped fuel that passion, but still I was always afraid of really being my true self and saying things that I truly felt. I was so afraid to take a ballet class because I knew they'd question my sexuality.

I was raised in a very similar way. I think this experience is quite common.

Absolutely, and it's hard to navigate that as a teenager. You're only really getting an understanding of who you are as an individual and who you are within the context of family — what roles you play and are expected to play. So, when you don't have the environment that nurtures your most authentic self, you put a lot of costumes on that don't really fit or speak to the character or person that you truly are. That's a big reason why I moved to New York: to be free of those costumes. Before that happened, I was in a boy band for years. I got to express myself musically, but again, it was a costume. I realized I wanted to pursue a career as an actor and ended up moving to New York to study acting in the theater.

Were you out by the time you moved to New York?

Interestingly, I was forced out. While I was in transition to moving to New York, I worked for the church for a year, recruited to take on a position at a megachurch in Florida. I was the creative director of the worship arts ministry there, and it was a really amazing job that taught me a lot about leadership and about how to operate within an organization and collaborate with people, how to manage a team of 50 people. I really loved my job, but I felt like I was getting sucked into this machine at the church. So I held onto the dream of moving to New York. I was taking acting classes and talking to some of my theater friends that I knew. I had gone to a karaoke bar with one of my theater friends and apparently, someone from the church saw us and thought that we were together as a couple. This friend of mine was gay, so that's why they made that assumption.

Did the pastor find out about you?

They told the pastor, so the pastor called me into the office and said he wanted to talk to me about a really serious matter. He relayed this story to me, and added that the person who saw me said they knew I was gay and that I was out with my partner being gay. Mind you, I had been celibate the entire year and hadn't dated the entire year. I had been working at the church, but I knew I was attracted to guys. My pastor said that we'd "work through it" as a church, and that as long as I wasn't fornicating with men or committing adultery then I was still acting in the will of God. But he still fired me on the spot.

"Part of the reason why I struggled with this idea of coming out is that we live in a culture that demands gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, and trans people come out even if it puts them at risk, but we don't ask heterosexual people to do the same thing."

Wow. Well, some would say that gave you a free pass to move to New York and be out and pursue your acting dreams. But what else happened?

I wish it were that simple. I was still struggling to understand my feelings about my sexuality and always trying to understand how my sexuality impacts my identity. If my identity as a human being was completely locked up in sexual identity or sexual desires, I am still trying to work through all of that, while still dating girls. Prior to working at the church, I had dated girls exclusively, but I knew I had this attraction to men. I just hadn't been acting on it. So, I then had to have a conversation with my mom because this happened on Saturday. She was going to come to church on Sunday and I wouldn't be there. The pastor was going to make an announcement that I "decided" to leave the church to pursue a career in acting, and none of that had yet come to fruition. I had to come out to my mom that day, and it was a really strange thing because I was not yet ready to make any announcements about my sexuality and identity. Part of the reason why I struggled with this idea of coming out is that we live in a culture that demands gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, and trans people come out even if it puts them at risk, but we don't ask heterosexual people to do the same thing.

I understand that. Identity is important to people.

Of course! I do recognize the importance of identity and transparency, but also I think that what we see happening is a result of us living in a heteronormative culture that normalizes heterosexuality and thinks that everything else is other. That part is false to me. My identity was decided for me when I was not ready to make any declaration. I had to try to explain something to my mom that I didn't even understand myself yet, and she and I had a whole falling out. I went through this deep and dark depression.

I'm so sorry to hear that. How did you deal with that fall out?

I was fortunate to have a mom who had enough insight into therapy. I started seeing a professional immediately after all this happened, because I don't know if I would have made it out of the other situation as well as I did if I hadn't done so. Therapy affirmed and encouraged me, and helped me pull myself out of the darkest place of my life. Finally, I got the courage to apply to a summer program at NYU in musical theater. After that, I auditioned for the conservatory, got accepted, and got a scholarship. Six months after all this happened with the church, I was moving to New York to pursue my dreams. Long story, I know, but that all shaped who I am today.

I think identity is something that is so loose. We have to realize that it's not fixed; it doesn't remain the same for the rest of your life. You learn new things about your identity as you grow, evolve, and experience new things. James Baldwin has this really amazing quote, and, I'm paraphrasing, but he essentially says that identity is like a garment that we wear to cover our nakedness, and we should wear this garment loosely so that we can always feel our nakedness underneath. That's the way I view my identity, my queerness, my identity as a Black queer man, a young Black queer man. All of these things are relevant and they signify certain things about me, but they're not complete indicators of who I am.

"Sometimes, you have to experience lovelessness in order to get to a place of loving yourself."

Somewhere along your journey, it sounds as if you really learned to love yourself. Is there anyone who helped you get there?

It's been so many people. Everyone I meet teaches me something about how I should love myself because I have seen how they love themselves, or I see how they love me — whether it's my mom or my grandmother or my great aunt or grandfather or my uncle, even, a therapist who helped me through a dark time. Sometimes, you have to experience lovelessness in order to get to a place of loving yourself. Or in going through moments of realizing when you really aren't taking care of yourself in the way you want other people to take care of you. Something else, too: many people think that Black men are closed-minded and are quick to shut out family members when they identify as queer or somewhere on the queer spectrum. But my uncle's response to my coming out was one of the most level-headed responses I had received.

What did he say to you?

He didn't say anything for a long time as everything was happening in the course of six months. The only thing he said to me via text message was a couple of weeks after it happened: "I know there is a lot going on right now. We will talk about it when the time is right." The night that I had my going-away dinner, he took me outside in front of the house and said, "I don't necessarily understand or agree with everything, but you will always be a jewel in my eyes and nothing will change that." We had a longer conversation about how it affected family dynamics, family members, and religion, but the thing I needed to hear from everyone in my family was exactly what he said. It came easiest from him, and it was not what I expected because of what I knew about him as a heterosexual man and things that the world tries to tell you that Black heterosexual men feel about queerness. He was one of the most affirming, which I find to be really interesting. I found that a lot of my queer friends have fathers and men in their lives who were affirming in that way as well.

I read somewhere that you were a bell hooks fan. In her work, she writes a lot about how family dynamics affect love relationships to self and to others. Have you read All About Love?

Oh, yes. Very much so. She says that you have to be able and willing to give yourself what you want to receive from other people and the universe. If I want someone to be compassionate and loving and consistent with me, I have to be loving and compassionate and consistent with myself. If I can't give it to myself, then no one else is going to give it to me. When I read that, that was revolutionary for me because I was going through a period where I was ready to start dating, and so realized if I do, this is the kind of person I would like to be with. I started making checklists of traits I wanted in a partner, not to hold anything so firm, but just so I could be clear about what it is I desire in a relationship. In that process, I realized that those are the exact things I need to be affirming for myself; those were the things I needed to become. So, yes, people like bell hooks, James Baldwin, and Marianne Williamson have really helped shape my journey to self-love. That along with experience has made me pretty self-aware. In those moments, I try to really access how I'm showing up and giving myself what it is that I need.

I wanted to ask you about the concept of chosen family. Many of your Pose co-stars have spoken about that in their own way. How does that manifest for you on set?

Well Pose has been a combination of all of those years of work I did before, both professionally and personally. The most rewarding thing about this project is that I'm growing so much in those aspects. You don't always get that opportunity where it's feeding everything you need for growth as an artist and as a person. In terms of the chosen family thing, we all have to navigate that, I think. Some experiences that we share involve not being accepted by the outside world. Not being accepted by our family at some points in our lives. Or in navigating what it means to be Black and Brown and queer in this industry.

We deal with being actors, singers, writers, and directors and all the things that we are, while having the identities of being Black and Brown and queer and trans. We all came into this thing having that in common, which doesn't normally happen. Usually, it's like you're on a project and you're the only one. You're the one Black body in the room. You're the one queer body in the room. You're the diverse card or the diversity pick. Not to say you're not talented, but often times for us, when you're the only one of you, then you are the talented, "diverse one." [As a society] we tend to think of these characters in Pose, who are based in real people's experiences, as a monolithic group of people: "those are queers or those are transgenders." On the show, we come together and look at them as individual people that have different identities and are diverse within their subculture. Coming into this project, we all have that in common, having all worked for years and heralding our own achievements before coming to Pose. But the project is bigger than us, and I love that it's helping people, especially young people, to have these discussions about identity and come to terms with who they are.

The show is also inspiring necessary conversations for people who might not have access to issues affecting queer and trans people of color.

Yes. In that way, it's confrontational. We have to be willing to tell our grandparents that it's not okay to use certain language. We have to educate them. I had a conversation with my granny about what it means to be transgender after Pose came out. I think that's one of the really beautiful things about what Pose has done to my family; it's opened up so much dialogue. We've got to sit folks in front of the TV who might not otherwise see it, and then you have to engage in conversation with them about their experience of the show, and share your own. It's through that that we can gain collective understanding and all be working towards the same thing.

"We're all fearless in our own right."

Can you tell me about your relationship with Billy Porter?

Well Billy Porter, for instance, is an icon in the theater world. He has talked about how he never thought he would be a leading man on television because so many people have shut the door on him just because he refused to be less out and proud or less flamboyant. So before I even met Billy, I admired him and looked up to him as an example of fearlessness and courage. I affectionately call him Father because he is one of the men in the world who I look to as examples, who have accomplished things and lived fearlessly in a way that I aspire to. He's just one example. We have Dominique Jackson, a trans woman who is an icon in the ballroom world. Talk about being fearless in that way. We're all fearless in our own right.

What can you say about Ricky Evangelista's journey during the second season?

I'm really excited that Ryan Murphy and the producers thought to bring Ricky back and expand on his character. I get to really showcase a range of my abilities this season. Ricky goes on tour at the end of Season One and we find out that he actually does have a talent for dancing, so I'm excited to explore what that looks like for Ricky and for him to fight for his dreams and what things will come up. I'm also excited to explore what it's like to be in a relationship while fighting for your dream. That's something that, as a young person moving to New York to study and with lots of dreams of being an actor, it wasn't always easy to date while being in the same city. So, how you navigate being in a long-distance relationship while fulfilling your dream is interesting for me. I'm also interested to see how Ricky really comes to terms with some of the traumas that he had to face in his life. Being a gay Black man in 1989 and 1990 was traumatic. AIDS is rampant, your friends are dying.

Who are you in all of that? It's also historical and it's important for people to see that and learn from that, too. We first meet Ricky homeless, now he's found a family, and all he's really known to do is survive on the streets using his charm, his body, and his street smarts, but now he has to still figure out how to deprogram himself from all of that stuff. What happens when you free yourself of that? There's more power and it can be used for good. I'm excited to let go of old Ricky and embrace the newer parts of his identity. But remember: identity is a garment that we can tailor, change out of, or wear loosely.

Photo courtesy of Pari Dukovic/FX