'Banana' and 'Cucumber's' Bethany Black talks trans stories and making UK TV history

Interconnected series Banana and Cucumber, both from Russell T. Davies (Queer as Folk), premiered stateside on Logo last month after airing in the UK earlier this year. Set in Manchester, England, Cucumber follows the end of a nine-year relationship between Henry and Lance while Banana will follow the lives and loves of Henry's younger friends with each episode focusing on a different character. The companion web series, Tofu, with stars of both shows talking about sex, coming out, hookup culture and more is available to watch online.

Last night's new episode of Banana on Logo focused on transgender character Helen played by trans actress and comedian Bethany Black. In the episode, Helen turns to her family for support after a jealous ex-boyfriend posts sexual videos of her on social media as revenge when he learns that she is moving on and dating new men. When the episode originally aired in the UK in February, Black made history as the first trans actor playing a trans character on UK television. You can watch the full episode now at Logo's website!

We got a chance to speak with Black about the importance of trans characters in media, the impact of sharing your personal story, and seeing your life reflected in what you watch. See what she had to say below!

GLAAD: How did you get involved with Cucumber and Banana, and what appealed to you about Helen's story?  

BETHANY BLACK: I had never acted before, I'd been a comic for over a decade and was having a really rough time, I'd broken my leg and had some other health problems and so I was broke and on the verge of bankruptcy, then one morning on Facebook I had three DMs from friends including the comedian Matt Kirshen with the casting call for the job, and it basically described me "Trans woman from Manchester 20-40, confident, a bit gobby."  So I thought "I'm not doing that"  preferring to do what I'd normally do when opportunities like this present themselves, not bother in case I fail and then watch it going "This is rubbish, I'd be way better in it"  but I was in this weird place and three people said "DO THIS".

I spent a day with my friends Toby and Cherylee who are both actors, who prepped me and then the next day had the audition, and it went from there.  Basically I emailed them on the Tuesday, had the audition on the Thursday, had a call back the following Tuesday, got cast on the Wednesday and by Friday was at the read through, we started filming that weekend.

I think the thing that appealed most about the story was that she was unapologetic.  There was no coming out story, she was just a woman who was trans, aside from a few mentions in the script she needn't have been trans, which I think is a massive leap in story telling about trans people, it informs the story but it isn't the whole story.  Personally I think it's time for stories like this to be told and it was just an absolute honour to be asked to play her.

GLAAD: You've made history as the first transgender actor playing a trans character on UK TV. Why do you think it's important for people to see trans stories?

BB: I think it's important because we've been notable by our absence, and when we do appear, they're not our stories, we're the punchline to a joke, we're grotesque or to be pitied or we're tricking people.  And when there are stories about trans people they're usually never played by us.  They're what cis gender people think trans people are.  And the thing is when you see our stories told about us and by us we become human, it's easy to hate trans people when you're thinking about us as an abstract concept, but it's difficult to hate Beth, or Steve or Jen, or Dwayne, it humanizes us and that's vital. 

GLAAD: Some of the most memorable scenes are with Helen's family showing up at her door to support her through the tape leak. Her mom talks about how she felt helpless when Helen was growing up because she didn't know how to support and help her. What would you like parents of trans and gender non-conforming kids to know?

BB: I have no idea!  I'm not a parent, all I know is my parents did a perfect job, they were supportive, they did the reading and learned and were patient with me and helped me through everything and I have a fantastic relationship with them.  My relationship with my parents is very similar to Helen's relationship with her parents, my mum in fact pretty much said the exact same things to me that Helen's Mum says to her in the show; that was another thing that I looked at and thought "This! This right here! This is perfect!"

I think, the thing is the world is tough and trans people's rights are way behind on LGB rights, but they're catching up and fast, the world changes incrementally and because of people like them, every time you challenge someone you make a difference and you make the world better and it'll get there.  I have a great life, I do a job I love, I have a girlfriend I love and who loves me and for whom being trans isn't even an issue, to the point that it seems alien that it would even be an issue.  Life gets better, but it takes all of us to try to help it get there. 

GLAAD: Have there been any trans stories or characters that have been particularly meaningful to you?

BB: I think when I first came out and was looking for my place in the world and saw that there was nothing that represented me, that would have been the perfect time to have something meaningful to watch.  I remember realising that I was also gay and that whole trying to wrap myself up in the gay culture meant that there were loads of gay stories that really spoke to me, but it really wasn't until Sophia in Orange Is The New Black that I felt that about a trans story.  And even then there's only a passing identification.  When I see the first story of a trans woman who's a butch lesbian that's not written by me, then I'll finally have that moment that most people have so often that they don't even think about it.

GLAAD: You're also a stand-up comedian and your sets are known for covering some very intense themes and personal stories. What inspired you to share that with others? What do you hope they take from your story?

BB: I can't help but over share, I nearly died trying to keep that I was trans from the world because it felt like such a shameful secret, and as a recovering addict there's the saying "you're only as sick as your secrets".  I think the turning point came for me when I was talking to a comic called Michael J Dolan about how I'd met a girl and got on really well and just in the course of conversation I'd told her my attempted suicide story that I'd never told anyone before, I told him and he said "That's hilarious, do you tell it on stage?"  I said "No."  And he said "you should.  Find that thing you'd normally never share with even your best friend and tell everyone, because that's where the art lives" And he was so right.  When you connect with someone talking about stuff like that you've made a real connection in a way you don't telling one liners.  Which is a style of comedy I can't do and have nothing but respect for.

I hope that my audiences get a laugh, but I also hope they think about things differently, which I know they do, I've had emails off people saying that they saw my show and for the first time didn't feel alone, or that they were going to a gender clinic now after feeling empowered to come out off the back of my show.  I got an email saying that they'd seen my show "Beth Becomes Her" about my transition as a last minute thing and they didn't know a thing about the show or its content and then nearly walked out 10 minutes in and decided to stick around until the end and wanted to thank me, because they'd not spoken to their child for 5 years since she came out as trans but now felt utterly ashamed of themselves and had reconnected with them as a result.  I cried for days off the back of that.  People are amazing and have a fantastic capacity for change.

GLAAD: With acting, comedy, and writing, what's next for you?

BB: I've got a couple of shows I'm trying to write and I really want to tour a new comedy show, really what I want to do most is spend time with my cats and get back skating with my local roller derby league, turns out I am EVERY lesbian stereotype.

You can keep up to date with Bethany on Twitter at @BethanyBlack and don't miss new episodes of Cucumber and Banana on Logo, Monday nights starting at 10pm!