TV Review: PBS special Prideland hosted by Pose actor Dyllón Burnside ★★★

This Friday June 12th, in observance of Pride Month, PBS will air Prideland, an hourlong special about the lives of LGBTQ+ people who live south of the Mason-Dixon line. The special is a companion to their ongoing Youtube series of the same name; some of the interviews in the special have already aired in a different form online, while others are unique to Friday’s special. Still other interviews will only air on the YouTube series.

Prideland is structured as a sort of travelogue, as host Dyllón Burnside (who plays Ricky Evangelista on Pose) drives around the South, visiting and interviewing LGBTQ+ people in states like Alabama and Texas, which have typically lagged behind northern states in terms of acceptance of queer people. Dyllón is an excellent host for the project. He has a warm, friendly smile that puts his interview subjects at immediate ease, and his chipper voiceover narration fits the PBS of it all, if you will, perfectly.

He starts the special by visiting his own hometown of Pensacola, Florida, where he relates his story of growing up in the church before being exiled after he came out to his pastor. Like many gay people, myself included, he fled to more accepting cities, settling in New York. It’s clear that he carries a sense of guilt for abandoning his Southern roots instead of sticking around to help change minds and culture.

April and Ginger Aaron-Bush tell host Dyllón Burnside about their decision to remain in a conservative city in Alabama to try to change hearts and minds.

It’s a theme that runs throughout the special, which features interviews with people like April and Ginger Aaron-Bush, a lesbian couple who were the first in Alabama to have their adopted daughter’s birth certificate altered to recognize two same-sex parents. One explains, “We decided, instead of making it easier on ourselves [by moving away from the discrimination they faced], why don’t we try to make the change to make the place better? …I just felt like, maybe if we stayed and worked in the community, and we showed the community that we’re just your average, normal family, that it might make a little bit of change.”

Later, he interviews Candy and Doreen Pratt, lesbian owners of a Texas ranch. Candy is the president of the International Gay Rodeo Association, and they talk about how important the gay rodeo scene has been to their lives — after all, it’s where they met. Dyllón is very touched by that and turns introspective. “I haven’t been sure that I could actually live in the south again,” he says, “just because I don’t know if I’m able to find acceptance. Openness. But this journey is opening my eyes to a lot, that across America, no matter where you go, there are pockets where you can find community, where you can find hope.”

Dyllón shares a meal with the House of Montage.

Especially this Pride Month, as protests continue around the country sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, and as the entire country is grappling with an increased awareness of issues around race, Dyllón’s unique perspective brings a great intersectional focus to the special. He interviews the members of the House of Montage, a “rainbow family” in Mississippi who provide an alternative support structure for people who have been cut off by their traditional family after coming out. The House of Montage is made up primarily of lesbian women of color, and Dyllón draws the comparison between the loving family he meets there and the ballroom Houses that take in his character on Pose. Afterwards, in the car, he reflects on the fact that so many of the homeless LGBTQ+ youth struggling for support are people of color.

To be honest, I approached Prideland expecting it to be a documentary about queer people made for a straight audience. And it is that, to be sure. There are educational digressions that describe ballroom culture, or recap the history of gay marriage over the last decade, or take the time to explain that, actually, adopting children as a same-sex couple can be difficult! — all things that queer audiences are likely to be intimately familiar with. The main project of the film seems to be, “Look! LGBTQ+ people are everywhere, and they’re just normal people who just want to live normal lives!” Which, y’know, feels like a category of representation we should have evolved past a while ago, and it’s somewhat depressing to realize that it’s still necessary in 2020.

Dyllón is overjoyed to be among longhorns in Texas.

However, that’s not to say that there’s nothing here for queer audiences. Far from it. I did ultimately find Prideland moving, as an (admittedly surface-level) introduction to the kinds of LGBTQ+ lives we don’t see represented on screen very often, most representations tending as they do towards usually-white gay people in bigger cities. Prideland insists that there is a certain quiet dignity in remaining where you are uncomfortable and unwanted, in insisting on your right to exist proudly as you are, in any space you call home, no matter who wants you to leave. There is nobility and sacrifice in choosing a harder life for yourself so that you can work to change the minds of the people around you. I’m someone who fled a regressive small town for a city as soon as I was able to, which I think was definitely the right choice for me, but Prideland made me stop and consider what my life might be like had I chosen to stay where I was raised.

We do still need media like Prideland. I’m not sure that those who need to see it most won’t just change the channel out of spite, but anyone who does check it out might find their hearts and minds shifted ever so slightly towards progress and love. Not a bad result for Pride Month.

In partnership with the special and ongoing series, Dyllón Burnside will launch a virtual conversation series on his Instagram Live titled “Proud: Black & Queer in America.” The first installment will take place today, Thursday June 11th, at 6PM EST / 3PM PST, on his instagram, @dyllonburnside, and will feature such guests as his Pose co-star Billy Porter and trans writer and activist Janet Mock.

Prideland airs Friday June 12th on PBS; in most markets, it will air at 9PM, but you should check your local listings.

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