UK's first transgender army captain tells of tears over US bathroom law

AS A SCOTTISH Parachute Regiment officer, Abigail Austen saw the horror of war unravel before her own eyes.

There were bombs and bullets in Iraq and Afghanistan and, while embedded with the US Army in Kandahar, the threat that at any moment the Taliban could strike. Yet it would be a visit to the US state of North Carolina and a bitter row over toilets, that would leave her crumpled on the ground, sobbing.

The UK’s first transgender army officer travelled there with a film crew to document the impact of a controversial law that forces transgender men and women to use toilets in schools and government buildings on the basis of their gender at birth.

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The legislation was signed by the state’s Republican governor Pat McCrory and supported by prominent religious leaders and businessmen who claim it protects women and girls from the risk of sexual assault.

However, since it became law in March major firms have pulled millions of dollars of business out of the state and high-profile sports and music artists, including Bruce Springsteen and the National Basketball League, have cancelled appearances.

The angry debate and claims the law discriminates against a vulnerable section of society has now placed it at the heart of the US presidential campaign – North Carolina is a “must win” state for Donald Trump in his bid to become US president.

Ms Austen, who served as Captain Ian Hamilton in the Parachute Regiment before gender reassignment surgery 10 years ago, spent 10 months investigating the impact on North Carolina’s transgender community and met key supporters of the bathroom law.

The results, including distressing scenes in which she breaks down in tears after having her status as a woman questioned and graphically criticised, will be screened on Channel 4 on Wednesday in an hour-long documentary, My Trans American Road Trip.

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Despite her battlefield experiences, Ms Austen, 51, admitted hearing extreme views of transgender and gay issues, and stories of discrimination among the transgender community had left her scared, distressed and worried for her personal safety.

At one point during a visit to the State Legislative building she was escorted by a police officer to a men’s public toilet as using the women’s could have led to her arrest.

Another time she defied an outspoken bathroom law supporter by nipping past the men’s toilets at his church to use the ladies’, and heard the fears of transgender men and women that vigilante patrols are operating around public toilets.

“I had forgotten what it was like to have so much hatred levelled against you,” said Ms Austen, whose family disowned her after her transition as a woman.

“I’ve rebuilt my life, no-one looks twice at me. To hear a bishop of the church say that all homosexuals are perverts, that a man in a dress is against human nature, was distressing.

“If you go down this road, then it’s basically what Germany was like in 1930.”

After a conversation in which a psychotherapist claimed gender dysphoria is the result of childhood trauma and can be reversed using therapy, Ms Austen was left sobbing.

She said: “I’m extremely contented soul, but to be told I’m a homosexual sodomite pervert for becoming happy, it was off the wall stressful and took me a couple of weeks to get over it.

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“My head was spinning, I broke down three times during filming.”

Ms Austen served with the British Army in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. It was during counselling for post-traumatic stress disorder following a roadside bomb that it emerged she had gender dysphoria.

She sued the Ministry of Defence for sexual discrimination and unfair dismissal after they refused to accept her back as head of communications in Gibraltar.

She was hired by Nato and embedded in Kandahar as head of strategic communications.

The bathroom issue has been placed at the core of the US elections. Donald Trump has confirmed his support for each State’s right to establish its own “bathroom laws”, while Hillary Clinton used a visit to North Carolina last week with First Lady Michelle Obama to stress that LGBT rights were at stake.

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