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Interview: Bethany Black on appearing in Doctor Who, acting whilst trans and dropping her trousers

Michelle O'Toole November 11, 2015

Last year Bethany Black was a jobbing comedian, happy, in her words, to do that until she ended up “dead in a ditch” after a car accident.

Now she is about to become the first openly trans person to appear in Doctor Who, only months after becoming the first openly trans person to star as a trans person on a British television series, in Russell T Davies acclaimed LGBT anthology shows Banana and Cucumber. We sat down with the actor and talked about smashing barriers, the rise of trans visibility and what she would do to get a passport.

So what is the reality of filming something like Doctor Who?

What you don’t see is the 30 to 60 crew members on the other side of it who are wandering around it with bits of tape, making sure that everything is there to make you look as good as possible. It’s really not very glamorous at all (laughs). You do something like doctor who, and it’s the biggest show in the world, 77 million viewers worldwide, and yet you’re still in a warehouse on the docks in Cardiff.

How did you find working with Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman? Was it daunting seeing them in costume as the Doctor and Clara?

I have never been one to get particularly star struck, I have been a stand up for fifteen years now, once you have gone and spent a three hour car journey in the middle of the night with someone you have watched on TV you very quickly get over that. That thing of freaking out, going “oh my god that’s such and such,” still happens to a certain degree, so when you are working you just gotta get on with your job. The first time I met Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman was at the read through the week before we were doing the show. And seeing them come in and they sit down and you’re like “oh god, oh god, they’re real! Right ok”. And on the first day of working with them when they turned up on set, in costume as the Doctor and Clara, the first five minutes of that is like “this is real, this is happening, oh my god, this is amazing” and then after that you are doing the same scene 5 times and then changing camera angle, doing it another 5 times, change camera angle, do it another 5 times…so it becomes a job very, very quickly! (Laughs) Not to say it isn’t the most fun job I have ever had in my entire life because it absolutely is, I have been a doctor who fan since I was, since I could remember television so it was absolutely a dream come true.

What can you tell us about the part you play?

I am not allowed to say anything. Everything is on lock down. It’s one of the weirdest things. With Doctor Who you get a pack from the BBC telling you what you are and aren’t allowed to say. And also you should change your passwords on your email every week from the moment it’s been announced that you are going to be in Doctor who. Because people will try and hack in and steal scripts and try and do all of these things. So the level of security around it is just phenomenal.

That isn’t the kind of thing you would expect when taking a part on a TV show.

Well it’s the sort of thing that, chatting to people who have been in it and people who’ve worked on it, they just say “this is it for the rest of your life now, now that you are in Doctor Who you are part of the family, forever, whatever you do, everything you do, someone who is a fan of Doctor Who will turn up and want to talk to you.” The fans are absolutely amazing, I’ve met quite a few of them so far and that’s without the show having even gone out. People get crazy obsessed with Doctor Who in the same way I have done but to a lesser extent. Now I’m a massive Doctor Who fan, but I have never gone to the extent of seeking out actors who are in it and sniffing them or licking them. I have been told, there are fans that do! I was at the wrap party on Friday and one of the producers was saying ‘have you had any sniffers or lickers yet,” I went “no, no,
‘Ah, don’t worry, they’ll come, you’ll get them!’

As a trans actor, what kind of issues have you maybe faced or what kind issues would you want to get out there for trans actors to watch out for?

I have honestly no idea because I never wanted to be an actor. I was quite happy being a stand up comic, and fully expected the rest of my life to go popping along, barely making enough from comedy until one night driving home I have a nasty car crash and end up dead in a ditch. And I was happy with that trajectory of my life. And then I broke my leg about three years ago. I ended up not able to work for about a year. So I ended up in lots of debt and then I got to a point where I phoned up the citizens advice bureau to find out how to declare bankruptcy. My partner was thinking she would have to leave the country, we’d run out of money, we couldn’t afford the house we were in. Everything had gone horribly wrong. And then I opened up Facebook and I had about half a dozen messages saying “you should audition for this, this is you” and a screenshot of the tweet Andy Pryor, a casting director for Cucumber and Banana had put out for the part of Helen. It said they were looking for a trans woman between the ages of 20 and 40, northern, bit gobby, confident, had transitioned a while ago so totally comfortable with themselves.

What I would normally do, what I had done previously when something like this had come up, I’d have gone “nah, it’s gonna be shit, I’m not doing that, I don’t want to do it” and then six months later when it’s on the telly, I’d watch it going, “pfft, I’d have been better in that” because, thats, you know *laughs* that’s our natural state I think. You can justify to yourself if you have never tried but had you tried you could have been successful. To try and fail is , perhaps, one of the more difficult things you will ever have to do emotionally. But at this point I was in this state of, “well it’s a Russell T Davies thing. So let’s do it, let’s go for this. So I emailed them, it’s a Tuesday morning, they said “can you come in on Thursday for an audition”. I did the audition. It was under two weeks between hearing about it and suddenly ending up with an acting career where I was in a starring role and making history *laughs*, you know, first trans woman to star in a TV series in the UK. And so it was amazing it was…it happened really really quickly.

And that lead onto the doctor who thing as well.

Yeah it did yeah, because Andy is the casting director for both of them. I’m in a really fortunate position that I’ve never had to struggle, I’ve never had people go “no you’re not” or “no actually we don’t want you, you’re trans you can’t play a cisgender person” or any of those things. I did Cucumber and Banana and that was great, and then I got cast in this. The writing in Banana was absolutely fantastic, the storyline wasn’t about the character being trans. The storyline was about their worst day. It was a revenge porn story just about Helen’s birthday. And it was about how she related to her family. The fact that she was trans was only a very small part of the story because it wasn’t even the story, it was just a character detail. Whereas so many of the other things I get sent to read, I look at them and go “oh right, OK, so your writers have thought that when you are writing a trans woman, a trans woman is basically a 1970’s drag queen.” So I have turned down things, I’ve turned down scripts, I have turned down scripts where the part being offered wasn’t particularly bad but the rest of it in relation to how it deals with trans people was terrible. Because it needs to be better. I will never turn up and do something because I need the work because I don’t. Acting was never my dream job, I’m a stand up, and now thanks to acting I have enough to live off from that. So if I get sent a script for a role and it’s got a terrible trans character in it I am just going to go “I don’t want to do that”.

I can imagine that would get frustrating for trans people where acting is their main job.

Yeah, absolutely. And for those people I honestly don’t blame them for doing those things, a job’s a job. And I think that by trans people going and doing these things, we can actually have a bit of an affect on how things are changed. A trans person is more prepared to say to a director “actually I don’t think you’re right about that, I don’t think my character would do this because I know that they wouldn’t do this because I wouldn’t do this and I don’t know anyone who would.” I think that by taking them and doing them, that will help to change because greater visibility is a good thing. I mean when I came out and transitioned 15 years ago there was no one like me anywhere in the media apart from when it was a story of ridicule or pity on things like Trisha and Jerry Springer and stuff like that. And things have changed, and people are more aware of trans people and more trans people have gone “I am trans, and I know other trans people, and I am not alone and I am prepared to talk about it” and social media has really helped that. And so as a result things have really really changed.

What with the Women and Equalities Select Committee inquiry on transgender equality, and all the moves the government have made, are the government more ahead of the curve than the media?

I think, to be honest, yeah, I think they are, I mean the fact that the gender recognition act went through in 2003 shows how much further ahead the government is than the media. I know that the stuff I am doing now is helping. That was always the thing, I have always felt that it’s a duty, no matter how difficult it makes my life, to make life easier for whoever has to follow me. There are some ways where it is so far ahead of the media and in some ways in which it isn’t, I now spend a lot of my time talking to people who work in media, I spend a lot of time with television producers, writers and various other people who work on the side of things who can actually get things done. And they’re straight up thing was “we don’t know anybody, we want more, but we don’t know enough people” and gradually that’s changing. I’m getting asked to do more things, I’m getting asked to go talk to more people, I’m getting asked to recommend people. It’s difficult in a way and it’s easy because when you are in the government, or when the select committee is sitting and they are saying “we need to get more people doing these things” that’s great because that doesn’t cost anything and it doesn’t take any effort just to go “yeah, we need more people”, we go “that’s fantastic that is brilliant, right, what’s your solution?” The TV companies all know that they need more trans people being able to do these things.

When I go in to advise on certain things and talk to different people, their issue isn’t malice, it’s ignorance. That is the reason you get bad scripts. But as trans rights issues build and the current sort of wave is happening, more people are realising that they do know trans people and what’s happening is that the majority of people now, more and more people are getting to the place where they’re going “actually do you know what? Trans people aren’t just some weird abstract concept or to be pitied at best or ridiculed at worst. They are people like Beth, or Rebecca Root (Boy meets girl) or Annie Wallace (Hollyoaks) or Riley Carter Millington (Eastenders) or they are any of the other people who they know or who they see or who they meet doing regular jobs just getting on with their lives. It does help to de exotify us a bit and I think that’s a good thing.

Yeah, I am quite amazed at how fast things has swung.

Yeah they have and you don’t realise it. I have spent six months off twitter this year, I have just gone back on and I’ve gone in with an entirely different mindset whereas now it is just jokes and not sharing any of the personal stuff and I am keeping my opinions to a minimum. In the six months that I was not on twitter I ran into one person who was perfectly happy to vocalise that they did not like trans people and they thought being trans was a mental illness. I was back on twitter for three days and I got called a misogynist by someone who didn’t think that trans people should really exist *laughs*.

Twitter can make one person look like five…

Yeah exactly! There are so few of them and they are on the wrong side of history and they are gradually being shouted out. But the problem comes when you push back too hard, as someone who is trans, you are facing a million micro aggressions a day from people in all sorts of different ways. There are all sorts of different ways in which people are suggesting, over the course of the day, that who you are not who you say you are, that you are deluded and you are not a real person and that you are not worthy and you are not worthy of love, you are not worthy of respect, you’re not worthy of even being talked to and it’s really easy to internalise this stuff and so when you actually hear somebody saying these things out loud the temptation is to fight that really, really hard. And all that does is cause people to entrench.

Do you think that is what happened with Germaine Greer?

As a comedian I don’t think anyone should be stopped from stating their views. And I don’t think that no-platforming somebody is a particularly useful tactic because it backfires and I think that is what happened with Germaine Greer. She wasn’t going to be talking about trans stuff and people have said “this woman is dangerous, she shouldn’t be talking about trans stuff” so she then went and talked about trans stuff in an incredibly offensive way and managed to get that out to loads more people than she would have done.

Why do you think the trans community handled the Germaine Greer thing the way it did?

It is that thing where we are constantly fighting. The second I leave my front door, I suddenly have a thousand things I have to worry about. I have what people call passing privilege because I don’t get people constantly pointing out that I am trans. That’s something which makes my life a lot easier but even with that there are the occasions when I go out and things happen and people go “oh! you are trans” and situations can turn violent incredibly quickly. And it might not happen frequently but it’s happened enough that I know that when I go outside my house I need to be constantly on edge. When you are fighting in that situation every single day of your life, constantly having to fight that as well as all the thousands of micro aggressions coming from the media telling you, that you are not what you say you are, it’s really difficult to know exactly what a justified response is to someone explicitly stating that. So someone like Germaine Greer calling trans women ‘it’ and saying things like “you can’t cut your cock off and be a woman,” saying these really nasty things about a community that’s already under fire… and we respond “hang on, this isn’t right, you can’t say this about us!”

“Fucking hell, you’re being a bit touchy aren’t you? Calm down, all I said was….”

What have you taken away from the transgender equality inquiry?

I want to get married to my partner. She is Swedish, I am English, if we go to Sweden, we can get married there and there’s no issue, if we come back to the UK our marriage won’t be legally recognised. If I get my gender recognition certificate sorted then it would be. In order for me to get a gender recognition certificate I need to go and get a letter from my psychiatrist who I haven’t seen in twelve years, I need to get a letter from a doctor stating that they know I am trans, I then need to go and pay a solicitor and then I need to go and get it put in front of the gender recognition panel, that will cost £500 minimum to get it done, to get all the bits and pieces that I would need, for a panel of cisgender people to look over evidence to decide whether or not I am who I say I am. So many people I have spoken to have said “oh god, how archaic is that? when did that…did that come in, in the forties or fifties? What the hell is that?” No, that came in, in 2003 and when they updated it in 2004 they added a spousal veto so your partner could decide whether or not you were allowed to apply for this..I was talking to my good friend Cherylee Houston, who is a disability rights activist and she plays Izzy in Coronation Street and I was telling her this and she just went “oh my god that makes me feel sick, the idea that you have to go through that to get it done, that is disgusting!” and it is!

When I went to get my passport so I could go visit my parents who live in France, I didn’t have a letter from the doctor because I haven’t seen him in about six years and I arrived with all of the stuff to try and get my passport sorted at the passport office, I got taken to a separate room and they were like “right, OK, we can go and change your name on your passport but the gender will have to stay male unless you have a letter from your doctor saying that this is permanent” and I was like “I could drop my fucking trousers now in here and now you that this is permanent, is that not going to be enough for you?” it’s ridiculous! It is ridiculously bureaucratic, it is ridiculously regressive, and it’s not saving or helping anybody at all! It’s not helping people’s relationships, it’s not helping people who have found themselves in a relationship with someone who has decided to transition, it’s not helping trans people, it’s certainly not helping trans people.

Why do you think changing your legal gender is the way it is? Why do you think they are so hesitant about self declaration?

The people who want to stop it are going “well we need to make sure that a very, very, very, very small number of people who would abuse this, can’t abuse it and in order to do that we are going to punish every single other person and make it really difficult for them. In Spite of all the mounting evidence against the whole “this is just a way for men to get in and get access to our children,” all that scaremongering stuff, they are pandering to them at the expense of the people they could really help. And it’s not helping anybody, it’s costing money….trans people don’t earn much! A trans person earns way less than the average cisgender person in every field.

Do you think the self declaration model is the way to go?

Yeah, well all it is, *laughs* basically, people have added so many levels of bureaucracy to it because they are terrified, they’re terrified of what it means to be trans. And what it means to be trans, at some point, is someone has made an admin error because they haven’t asked what gender you are! And there is medical help that can help, the rest is just admin! Pure admin! So just being able to get in touch and go “Hi! yeah, you marked down on my birth certificate that I’m male, it turns out that was wrong, can we get it amended please?”
“Oh yeah, sure, fill in this form, send it in!”

Fantastic, sorted, that is literally all it is! Literally, poor admin dressed up as a moral issue.

You can watch Bethany in Doctor Who this Saturday

More: banana, Bethany Black, Cucumber, Doctor Who, gender recognition act, gender recognition certificate, germaine greer, russell t davies, tofu, Transgender

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