I used to be a paratrooper.
Load, point, shoot, recover. It's how The Parachute Regiment taught me to fire a gun. I practised the drill so often, it became a natural act, performed without any thought or hesitation.
It's the same reflexive, natural action that we perform as human beings when we go to the toilet. We've done it since we were tiny; regulating that action is probably the first learned behaviour our parents taught us.
The act itself is primal but the process is nurtured, even if we do not actively realise it. We go to a set place, decided by gender, private to that gender. Men stand communally or sit privately, women sit privately. The bathroom ritual is an odd mix of genetics and custom.
For transgender people, the simple act of going to the toilet can become a moment of sheer horror. I was identified as a boy at birth. After 44 years of despair, I became a woman.
As a boy, going to the toilet was a mental and physical realisation that I was not who I truly am. Every day, I was reminded of the fact that I carried the wrong genitalia as part of my body. Every day for 44 years, try as much as I might, I could not use a urinal. That trauma nearly broke me.
I well remember the sheer terror of going to the gents, desperate to relieve myself, and finding myself standing at a urinal and simply unable to pee. My brain could not make my body perform. However, if I slunk off in embarrassment to the cubicle and sat down, a miracle happened.....
In 2007, I went through gender normalisation, after a lifetime of struggle. I no longer possess the apparatus to pee standing: and from that day to this, using the ladies has never been an issue. The toilet has become a natural function, as it should be.
I have been told by girls who become men that the single most transformative experience they have had was the mental change when they realised that they could urinate standing up. That was their dream.
I give thanks every day that I achieved mine.
The Situation In America
In 2016, I went to North Carolina to make a film for Channel 4 on the iniquitous 'Bathroom Bill', which restricts transgender people to the gender recorded at birth. In my case, no matter my physical reality, I have to use the men's toilet there, or break the law. In the film, the state police make me go to the men's toilet.
For the first time in ten years, I had to face the reality of going back to the room that had caused me such discomfort for the first 44 years of my life. Making that film hurt me so much, I had to seek counselling after it was over. The level of bigotry I faced from the legislators behind the 'Bathroom Bill' was just too much to bear.
In essence, they predicated their decision on their belief that transgender people are sexual perverts. Women, in particular, they believe, would be at risk of sexual assault if they had to go to the bathroom with a transgender person.
Why do we insist on separating gender in bathrooms? It's not as if we do radically different things in there. Man, woman or elephant, it's all the same point and shoot routine. Speaking as somebody who has lived in both male and female spaces, if you take away the urinal, then every piece of furniture in there is the same too.
Yet perhaps that is the nub of the issue: male sexuality. When a woman sits to use the toilet, she is vulnerable because she is dis-robed. When a man uses a urinal, he not only is using the very part of his anatomy that marks him as a man, but retains his rugged masculinity. No vulnerability there. The hunter-gatherer can swiftly move on to the dinosaur hunt.
Bathroom design is the physical manifestation of our genetic heritage.
The simple fact is that most architects are men. There is not a woman alive who has not stood patiently in a queue for the toilet and wondered why there are never enough cubicles. If architects were women, there would be a heck of a lot more stalls.
The End of the Urinal?
Which is, I think, the eventual answer: re-building our toilets to remove the gender difference. It is time to accept the end of the urinal. The hand washing areas can be happily co-joined. If every stall is then made secure, by building floor to ceiling partitions with a properly locking door, then it really doesn't matter who goes in there.
Women will no doubt be horrified. Not least because of the legend of men's toilet habits. As somebody who has seen the point and miss of both genders, I can assure you that women can be just as inaccurate as their male counterparts. Both genders need to smarten up their acts, which is surely a simple matter of toilet training.
Co-incidentally, shared facilities would remove the vulnerability argument from the 'Bathroom Bill' logic. If men and women shared a bathroom, then those valiant male defenders of women's virtue who proposed that hateful Bill would be right next to the women they wish to protect. Case solved: unless, of course, the entire Bill is predicated by a subtle misogyny to begin with...another argument for another day.
So that's my solution: stop building urinals! Build more stalls instead! Men can still do that precious standing up thing and be all John Wayne in private. Just as women sit down in private. Differently abled people get to be part of the wider community: trans people can join in whatever way they think works.....
So simple, yet so insurmountable. Time to put aside the differences and celebrate our shared gift - our humanity.
Hear me on this: I just want to go to the bathroom. It is a basic human right, on a par with breathing. If you do not hurt me, I will not hurt you.
And I have never met a transgender person who would say anything more. Our most basic desire is to be accepted for who we are, in the skin which we inhabit, in the role we choose. We can't change the fact we have to go to the bathroom. We just want the same dignity you have taken for granted all your life.
So build bathrooms with stalls.
Transgender people will not hurt you, nor can you be hurt merely by sharing a bathroom with one.
We are human beings. Allow us that simple luxury.
About the author:
Abigail Austen was the UK's first transgender army officer. The former paratrooper is now a prominent activist and author of Lord Roberts' Valet. She has participated in documentaries surrounding the subject of transgender issues including Channel 4's My Trans American Road Trip.