Dyllón Burnside of ‘Pose’ on being queer: ‘News flash! I sleep with who I want’
The Unwind is Yahoo Life’s well-being series in which experts, influencers and celebrities share their approaches to wellness and mental health, from self-care rituals to setting healthy boundaries to the mantras that keep them afloat.
For three seasons of FX's Pose, which wraps up on Sunday with a sure-to-be poignant finale, Dyllón Burnside has reigned as Ricky Evangelista — the scrappy, handsome dancer who turns his life around through the queer ballroom scene of 1980s New York. Still, while it's the end of the beloved series — which has arguably done more for the visibility of transgender people of color than any other show — it appears to be just the beginning for the Los Angeles–based actor and singer, who got his start in a boy band, 3D.
On June 11, Burnside will release a new single, "Heaven," the follow-up to 2020's "Silence," and in May it was announced he'd be returning to Broadway (after Holler if Ya Hear Me, inspired by the lyrics of Tupac Shakur, in 2014) in Thoughts of a Colored Man, opening this fall. Then, on June 2, Ryan Murphy took to Instagram to announce that Burnside and other vets of the producer's shows would be added to the cast of American Horror Story.
But the actor seemed just as down-to-earth as ever as he took time out to speak with Yahoo Life about mental health, sexuality and more in the days leading up to the Pose finale and the kickoff of Pride Month.
How does it feel to be in such a powerful position, through Pose, of helping to humanize queer trans people of color?
It’s been really transformative for me … and eye-opening, in the sense that it has awakened me to my own power, awakened me to the power of authenticity. The power of who we are as individuals can do really beautiful and amazing things. And the things that people call flaws are actually not flaws at all, but are our beauty marks, so to speak. They are the things that make us precious and rare and special — they’re superpowers. And so it's being a part of Pose that is a wake-up to all of that, and so much.
You have previously self-identified as “queer," and got personal a few years back when you hosted the GLAAD-nominated series Prideland. Going into Pride month, what are you hoping and fighting for, in terms of what’s needed for LGBTQ equality?
I think so much is needed right now. I hope that— and this is a lesson that we can take from Pose — we don't have to agree with each other. We know that the characters on Pose are family, their chosen family, and week after week, we watched them rally around each other and support each other. But there's always an argument. There's always a fight. Elektra is always flipping over a table. And I think that that's what our world needs — to understand that we don't have to agree. We don't have to have the same point of view to be family, to be supportive of one another, to love one another to, to be polite and calm and to ensure that everybody has equal access and is supported by our law enforcement, and supported by the power structures that be. So, that's my wish for the world right now. That's what I'm fighting for.
You’ve also discussed your sexuality as being “beyond the binary” of gay or straight. What’s important for people to understand about that?
It’s not important for other people to understand about me. I have to understand it, because — news flash! — I sleep with who I want. I think that it's important for us to talk about sexual identity, because we live in a world that's heteronormative. And if folks who are not heterosexual do not speak up about their identity, then it's assumed to be other and to be abnormal when in fact it is incredibly normal. I think most people exist on the spectrum. They just don't accept it or realize it.
Billy Porter recently disclosed that he is HIV-positive, 14 years after his diagnosis. He wrote that he had also recently shared this news with the cast of Pose. How did that disclosure affect you personally?
It made the work that we do all the more real, in the sense that it has real life implications for everyone that encounters this work — both those who are working on it in front of and behind the camera, and those who bear witness to it on the screen. Billy's revelation was very sobering at that moment — as we watch his character suffer due to complications of HIV and AIDS, and then to hear his story of triumph through the AIDS epidemic, to this point now, and being able to celebrate his life and the lives of those who he lost …and the character goes on to do what Billy has done in his own life, which is watch all of his friends around him and his lovers die, but survive, and to deal with that — that survivor's guilt, but also endeavor to have a life outside of that. … So it grounded my work in reality, to sort of have a complete understanding of Billy's lived experience.
I imagine that takes a lot of emotional work. How do you take care of your own mental health and wellness?
There are so many different ways that I have played with and explored this — meditation being one. Yoga and bodies is something I find to be really helpful, and working out in general, but yoga specifically requires a certain level of, like, attention and breath work. That's meditative for me. Therapy is also something that I've engaged with [for] over 10 years, and that's been really helpful. Music is a big one. I make music because I have to, you know?
Music is my first love, and also something that is a necessity for me. … It's the way that I process feeling. It's the way that I process a heartbreak. It's the way that I process confusion. It's the way that I processed joy. Of all of the ways that I express as an artist, I think music is perhaps the most deeply personal in terms of how much of myself I put into it. Singing is a very vulnerable thing…
I also love to read. Reading really slows me down. Journaling slows me down. It really grounds me. And perhaps the biggest thing is being outside … I need to be able to put my feet in the grass … I grew up on a ranch in Northwest Florida with cows and horses and chickens and dogs and pigs and the whole nine yards. And we wore shoes outside, but there were also times when I didn’t. And like, there's just something that's really grounding to me about having my feet placed in the earth. That is a really big part of my wellness practice.
How have two main issues of the difficult past year — COVID and the racial injustice protests — affected your mental health?
The past year has been so overwhelming, with so many terrible things happening in the world. And I think that social media is a great place, because it allows us to be aware of what's going on, but it can sometimes be overstimulating and overwhelming and can really cause a lot of anxiety …particularly as it relates to the reports of police violence against Black and brown people — Black men and Black trans women — and, you know, seeing what's happening in Palestine right now … the hate against immigrants. It’s made my heart hurt, and has caused anxiety, and so I've had to disconnect a lot from social media. My relationship to it has shifted a lot, and in September, I took a monthlong hiatus from Instagram and Twitter and Facebook and everything, and I found so much space in my life when I did that … and my whole relationship to it has shifted ever since.
I think COVID has added another layer into the anxiety. And what has been my sort of grounding mantra is "confidence, stillness." I've been leaning into that more and more every day — just finding stillness, and confidence in the stillness, and not feel like I have to like rush to the next thing. … Sometimes that’s hard …because you're, like, buzzing, and all of these things are happening in your head, and there's self-doubt and there's anxiety and there's fear. … COVID has been reminding us to lean into the stillness and that, when we do that, we have more power than we think we do.
I think that if we all just take a look back at the last year and recognize how beautiful it was to actually not have FOMO … and to just actually lean into our own lives and realize [we will see that] there's so much more beauty to mine and excavate in our lives, in that stillness. I want to carry that with me all the days of my life.
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