Dyllón Burnside knew he wanted to be an entertainer the moment he saw Whitney Houston in "The Bodyguard" at the age of 5.
“The first song I remember singing as a kid was ‘I Will Always Love You,’” he told TODAY. “The songs in the movie and on that soundtrack were dramatic, emotional, honest, and sophisticated which was everything I knew I wanted to be.”
Though his love for music began at an early age, Burnside, currently starring in the final season of FX’s groundbreaking drama "Pose," says being raised on a farm in Pensacola, Florida sparked his interest in the arts.
“I had a wonderful and beautiful experience growing up on a ranch,” the 32-year-old said. “I believe being connected to the earth and the natural world influences creativity. As a kid, that environment gave me time, space, and clarity to imagine a life I could create for myself, and even today, being in the outdoors still inspires me.”
With his mother as his manager, Burnside began his journey to stardom in a boyband with two of his cousins.
“I started out as a rapper in a group with two of my cousins called 3D,” he said. “We had the opportunity to tour with Rihanna, sing with Stevie Wonder, and even perform at Madison Square Garden. That experience really helped me realize that this was a life I wanted for myself. And when I had an opportunity to spend time in L.A., and go to auditions, that experience sparked my desire to be an actor.”
Though the group enabled Burnside to begin honing his talents as a songwriter, producer and singer, he says his musical interests and his vision for his career no longer matched that of his family’s.
“I felt that my family members’ dreams were being projected on to me,” he said. “As I grew older, I began realizing the things that I was interested in like ballet dancing or classical music, didn’t necessarily align with their ideas, or society’s ideas, of what it meant to be a man.”
After leaving the group, Burnside moved to New York City to study musical theatre at the New School. Shortly after, he landed a role in Broadway’s "Holler If Ya Hear Me," a jukebox musical inspired by the music and lyrics of Tupac Shakur in 2014. That same year, he also appeared in NBC's "Peter Pan Live!"
Burnside’s biggest break came in 2017 when he nabbed the role of Ricky Evangelista on "Pose." Created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals, "Pose" instantly earned critical acclaim for its depiction of New York City's African-American and Latino LGBTQ underground ball scene in the 1980s and 1990s. The series made television history for boasting the largest cast of transgender actors ever to appear as series regulars on a scripted show and for its nuanced portrayals of people living with HIV.
Burnside says starring on the series has been an experience that has changed him just as much as it has changed the possibilities for LGBTQ storytelling and visibility on screen.
“Being on 'Pose' is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that has meant so many things to me,” he said. “It’s groundbreaking because of how it depicts the lives of Black and brown LGBTQ+ people, how it deals with HIV/AIDS, and how the only three main characters on TV with HIV are all on this show.”
“This show has been my joy, my pain, and my therapy,” Burnside continued. “It’s been a way to realize and release my own traumas and breakthrough some of the issues I hadn’t dealt with such as my own internalized homophobia, my own issues with gender identity and my own lack of awareness and understanding about the trans identity and how that lack of awareness contributed to the violence and oppression of trans people.”
Though a proud member of the LGBTQ community, Burnside says he doesn’t identify with any particular letter. “I typically choose the word ‘queer’ to describe myself,” he said. “My journey with my sexual identity has evolved over 32 years and continues to evolve, and I like to allow space for that. Queer as an identity marker allows for more space inherently.”
"Pose" also stars Grammy and Tony award winner Billy Porter, who won the Primetime Emmy Award in 2019 for outstanding lead actor in a drama series for his role as Pray Tell on the show, becoming the first openly gay Black man to be nominated and win in any lead acting category at the Primetime Emmys.
Porter recently made headlines after revealing he’s been HIV positive since 2007 in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. Burnside, who’s character is the on-screen love interest for Porter's character, says Porter’s story is an inspiration.
“I’m happy for Billy and proud of him,” he said. “Billy is showing the world that people can live a full, beautiful, happy and successful life and live the lives of their dreams while being HIV positive and that is so important to see. So many of the stores we’ve been told about HIV/AIDS has shown the pain, death and despair. We have needed for a long time to change the narrative of living with HIV. People have been living full lives despite being diagnosed with HIV for a long time. I’m grateful for Billy’s bravery to allow his story to shift the paradigm.”
"I want to let all queer people know that my life has been the exact opposite of what every naysayer has said. I’ve succeeded every expectation placed on me — and so can you.”
After "Pose" comes to an end, Burnside says he’s looking forward to making more music and is set to star in one of the first new plays to open on Broadway since the Great White Way went dark during the pandemic last March.
“I’m excited about starring in a new show called 'Thoughts Of A Colored Man' that will be opening on Broadway later this year,” he said. “It’s an incredible cast of all Black men and it blends spoken word and slam poetry.”
Burnside is also releasing new music he hopes will bring much needed joy to the LGBTQ community. “I have a new song being released this month called ‘Heaven,’ which is a letter to myself and to any queer person who’s been told the way they love is unnatural. For myself and for us, I sing my love will take you to Heaven,” he said.
“As we are seeing the Catholic Church make remarks condemning same sex marriage, seeing people in Ghana being arrested and oppressed for who they are, in the face of all of the oppression and pain the LGBTQ community is still experiencing around the world, I want to bring light and love to the world. I want to let all queer people know that my life has been the exact opposite of what every naysayer has said. I’ve succeeded every expectation placed on me — and so can you.”
This LGBTQ Pride Month 2021, TODAY is highlighting the LGBTQ trailblazers in pop culture who paved the way, along with the trendsetters of today who are making a name for themselves. By examining their experiences individually, we see how all of their stories are tied to one another in a timeline of queer history that takes us from where we were to where we stand today.
CORRECTION (June 2, 2021, 7:36 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Burnside's favorite Whitney Houston song. It is "I Will Always Love You," not "Run to You."