Is LGBTQ+ Representation Enough? Dyllón Burnside Talks On-Screen Queerness, ‘Pose,’ And Where True Revolution Begins

The world of entertainment continues to expand and as society progresses the images and stories portrayed on television follow suit. According to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) 2021-2022 Where We Are on TV report, of the 775 series regular characters scheduled to appear on scripted broadcast primetime programming for the aforementioned season, 92 characters (11.9 percent) are LGBTQ, an 2.8% increase from the previous year, marking a new record high percentage of LGBTQ series regulars on broadcast television.

“The growing state of LGBTQ representation on television is a signal that Hollywood is truly starting to recognize the power of telling LGBTQ stories that audiences around the world connect with,” expressed GLAAD President & CEO Sarah Kate Ellis in a statement.

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As a queer musician, on-stage actor, and on-screen talent, Dyllón Burnside applauds the ascension in representation but still recognizes the importance of translating media portrayal into real-life action as one of the leading roles in the acclaimed television series Pose which highlighted New York City’s drag and ball culture scene.

“It’s not enough to just say, we’ve got a slate of LGBTQ shows, including Pose,” Burnside explains to VIBE. “It’s not enough for us to just have representation in the media. You’ve got to put your money behind it too. Representation is the beginning. Representation is a seed that leads to changing hearts and minds.”

From Pose and the Emmy Award-winning PBS documentary Prideland to Thoughts of a Colored Man and the scripts and projects still in development, Burnside continues to build his resume and release music but also make a lasting impression and contribute impactful artwork.

Burnside shares he hopes to leave a legacy that is “expansive, prolific, and meaningful,” and with his start, the 33-year-old talent is sure to accomplish just that.

In our conversation, Burnside discusses recognizing both Pride Month and Black Music Month, on-screen queerness, Pose, and if representation is enough.

This interview had been edited for length and clarity. 

Dyllón Burnside Pose
From left: Jeremy Pope, Mj Rodriguez, Angel Bismark Curiel, Dyllon Burnside, and Dominique Jackson in Season 3, Episode 303 of FX’s ‘Pose.’

VIBE: With June being both Black Music Month and Pride Month, do you think about how queerness and Black music go hand-in-hand? And how do you think the industry can continue to support queer artists across all genres to make sure that people are getting fair representation as well as not getting sidelined for things like collabs or ignored by mainstream media or disrespected by their peers?

Dyllón Burnside: That’s such a great question, and I think it’s such a layered answer in actually solving the problems there. The fact of the matter is queer folks, Black queer folks, are the architects of so much of popular culture and so much of what takes place in pop music and from singers and songwriters and producers, to choreographers and stylists and content creators, just across the board. And not just in today’s society where queerness is more generally widely accepted. But since the beginning of time, queer folks, if we want to take it back to the roots of where we get contemporary pop music from, it’s gospel. We know that in the church, so many of our music ministers were queer. We are so much ingrained in the culture of Black people, queer people and Black people’s identities are so intimately connected. And I think, really, at the root of it, it’s about us understanding that the future and the well-being of queer folks and trans folks are intimately connected to the well-being of all Black folks, and that we all must lift each other together.

I love when June comes because it is this confluence of Black music and queer music that’s all sort of being celebrated at once. And I remember June 2020, when the protests were happening, and the protests for Black people were also very queer and there were also Pride parades that were Black Lives Matter protests. And that energy was so inspiring to me, and it’s something that I think that we should take into the remainder of our lives and our history, is this idea that the destiny of Black people and queer people is so intimately connected.

Pose was one of the most impactful and most important shows of the last decade specifically for LGBTQ+ representation, but also just because it was a bomb show.

Thank you!

You’re welcome! What do you miss most about Pose?

So many things. That’s a really hard one. I miss my castmates. I miss seeing them every day and learning from them and playing with them and exploring with them. I miss the clothes, I miss the amazing wardrobe and our wardrobe team led by Analucia McGorty. I miss her so much. I miss our hair and makeup people. I miss being in a space that is filled with Black and Brown queer and trans people every day. I miss just the energy of what it means to celebrate who we are and to be unapologetic about it. To not have to shrink any part of myself, my Blackness or my queerness, I miss that. And I don’t shrink it anymore, but I think it’s when you’re out in other spaces that aren’t Black and queer, it becomes harder to maintain all of the dynamism that we carry as people.

I miss those characters and the stories and telling that story. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, one that I’ll never forget and that we won’t ever get back. It was like lightning in a bottle. And so I hold onto the memories of it very fondly and I’m grateful for it, but I’m also excited for all of the new things that are shaping up in my world.

Before Pose took off, where were you?

I had moved to New York after being fired from my church, and I said, “You know what? I’m going to pursue my dream. I’m going to finish my degree and study theater. I’m going to study musical theater,” because music was my first love, and I already had a musical background. I was like, “I could do musical theater because I already have that part. I just need to learn the craft of theater.” So, I came here to train. After my first year here, I booked a workshop for a musical called Holler If Ya Hear Me that went to Broadway, it was a Tupac musical. From there, I did a lot of musical theater. I worked on BeBe Winans’ musical for a couple of years. Then I told my agent I didn’t want to do musicals anymore, that I wanted to make a shift, and that really what I wanted to do, I wanted to be a leading man. They found this play that was going to this theater festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, making no money, living in a dorm room. I went out there and had such a gratifying, artistic experience. And while I was there, I auditioned for Pose. That’s when I turned in my self-tape for Pose while I was doing that play.

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Do you think how TV, now with so many different identities represented, and this is a very generic question, but do you think the representation is enough? Why or why not?

The representation that we see in media right now, do I think it’s enough?

Yes, in general. or is the concept of representation even enough?

I don’t think the concept of representation is enough because I think that the idea is that so long as… There’s a point where us having this representation show up on our screens sort of becomes a scapegoat for folks to say, “Well, we have shows on the networks that are depicting the lives of Black and Brown folks and of queer folks and of trans folks, so we stand behind those issues.” No. No, no, no, no, no. And we saw this show up with Disney recently where it’s like, “You got to put your money where your content is.”

That’s why representation is important, to shift hearts and minds. Hearts and minds change the way they vote and shift policy, change the way that they spend their dollars, change the way that they treat their nephews and nieces, and change the way they treat the people that come to their church. It’s about shifting culture and about shifting policy and the way we spend our dollars. We look at Roe v. Wade being potentially struck down in the Supreme Court. We have any number of representations of women being able to go out into the world and live liberated lives, in a post-Roe v. Wade world, that shows that women should have autonomy over their bodies, but that didn’t stop these people from going in here and voting to strike down Roe v. Wade.

It’s not enough to just have representation. It’s about what we’re seeing right now is quite literally a culture war. And so many people want to polarize it between right and wrong, and I don’t think it’s about what’s right and wrong. I think it’s about what is fair and what is true and what honors the humanity of all people. Honoring someone’s humanity is not the same as giving them a slot on a TV show. Honoring their humanity is, “Yes. I see you, I understand you, and I want to help to make sure that the rest of the world sees and understands and supports you.”

I think it’s a very complex thing. You’re asking all these hard questions, but it’s true. I do not think representation is enough. And I sometimes get frustrated with this idea of representation, not because it shouldn’t happen, but because representation alone is not revolution. Representation along with equity is where revolution begins.

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Do you think that people look to queer people to push for representation instead of doing some of that work themselves? How can we kind of step outside of that to get everybody on the same page?

It’s just like it’s not the burden of Black people to end racism, it is not the burden of queer and trans folks to end homophobia and transphobia. It is incumbent upon those people who are in the seat of power to understand the ways in which they uphold a system that is inherently homophobic, transphobic, racist, patriarchal, and sexist, classist, and understand that they have to give up their privilege so they can get their foot off of other people’s necks. It’s not the responsibility of queer people to end systemic oppression for queer and trans folks. I think that is a part of the reason why these struggles continue. Granted, we have made so many strides forward, and we continue to make strides forward, and we have to continue to strive. We can’t do it alone, though. We cannot end it alone. We need people who are not queer and who are not trans to also be clear that it is their burden to end the oppression that we face.

What are some of the stories that you hope to tell going forward, whether it be behind the scenes, as a screenwriter, director, or producer? Any stories that you would like to portray on screen? Any themes you want to explore in your music? What are some of the things that you want to do creatively, as you mentioned, as your career continues to expand?

I want to be a superhero, DeMicia! I want to be a superhero, which is another reason why this song (“superpowers”) is so special to me. It’s like I imagine myself being a superhero. When I’m working out to this song, I imagine myself in a Marvel movie running through the fields, running through the streets like Will Smith in Bad Boys. It’s like a superhero, [an] action hero. I want to be Indiana Jones, quite frankly. I want to be Indiana Jones who happens to be Black and who happens to be queer. I want to tell stories about Black men that expand the narrative around who Black men get to be in the world. That’s my mission with all of the work that I create is how can I expand the narrative around who Black men are, who we get to be, what roles we get to play, how much money we get to make, what songs we can sing? That’s my mission in this world, is to create a little bit more space for Black boys to be more free.

And are there any other talents or creators that you are hoping to work with in the future?

Yes. Lena Waithe is at the top of my list of people that I want to work with. I want to work with the Obamas. I want to work with Viola Davis. I want to work with Lupita Nyong’o, Regina King, and Issa Rae. Just so many brilliant Black and Brown people. And so many other people who aren’t Black and Brown. Oscar Isaac, and Jessica Chastain, they’re some of my favorite actors. Will Smith. There’s so many brilliant people, so many folks that I already know and love that I want to work with. I want to continue to work with my sister, Angelica Ross. I love her. I think she’s everything in this world and more. MJ Rodriguez, Ryan Murphy. I want to continue to work with the folks who I know and trust, and we trust each other and have that relationship, too.

Dyllón Burnside Performing
Dyllon Burnside performs at the Outloud Raising Voices Music Festival at WeHo Pride on June 04, 2022 in West Hollywood, California.

And what advice would you give to someone who’s in that position now?

I tell that story because sometimes we have to sacrifice for our dream. Sometimes we have to take a step back from what feels like the more glamorous option, or the thing from the outside looking in might seem like the thing that makes you look like you’re on top of the world, to actually take a step back and reassess, “Who am I, and what do I want, and why do I want it?” And when I realized that what I really wanted was to be a leading man so that I could actually tell the stories about Black men that haven’t been told, I knew that I couldn’t go and do that musical. I needed to go to West Virginia. And it was hard. There were bed bugs in my dorm room. It was rough, logistically speaking, and it was not a pretty time in my life financially and in other ways. But creatively, I was exactly where I wanted to be and I had everything I needed. And the universe sent me the blessing of Pose as a result of being a good steward of my time and my energy and being clear.

And so I would just leave with the readers that things might not seem like they’re going the way that you planned, or the how isn’t important. It’s important for us to ask the questions of who are we, what do we want to be doing, and why? And if we get clear on that, the rest will fall into place. The how will work itself out. They came looking for me for Pose all the way in West Virginia and flew me to New York so that I could meet Ryan Murphy. You’ve just got to get an alignment.

Dyllon Burnside Superpower
Dyllon Burnside Superpower

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