WHEN the university newspaper Edinburgh Student published a one-sided piece attacking the students’ own rector last week, I was drawn to the comment from the University itself.

Ann Henderson had simply retweeted details of a meeting at Westminster regarding the Gender Recognition Act, but because the groups promoting that meeting were judged by the article’s author to be phobic towards trans people, she was condemned.

The University’s comment was ambiguous. Ms Henderson was acting in a personal capacity, it said. Then it declared the university opposed to all kinds of prejudice and in particular transphobia.

I asked the University what it was saying, exactly. It told me there was nothing to be added to that statement. But it seemed to me that the University was dissociating itself from Ms Henderson and implying that her actions were transphobic. The University refused to elaborate. I said this was cowardly. If she had been transphobic, they should say so explicitly and clarify how.

To the university’s credit, they came back with a more even-handed statement, conceding the rector’s Tweet had attracted complaints, but also messages of support. The university declared itself committed to free speech, while also opposed to transphobia.

How has it come to this, where simply to acknowledge the validity of a debate is evidence of bravery on the part of an educational institution?

Updated legislation on gender recognition is progressing at both Holyrood and Westminster. Both our parliaments are moving towards a position whereby someone who wishes to live as the opposite gender can do so, simply by declaring their stated identity.

This addresses a long-standing problem for trans men and women who have until now had to engage with a bureaucracy they describe as dehumanising, required to live for two years as the gender the identify with and needing to gain a diagnosis of gender dysphoria – effectively classing them as having a psychological illness. Replacing this cumbersome process with simply recognising people as the gender they “feel” is clearly in the interests of people with gender dysphoria.

However it does raise questions, particularly for women. Men feel less concerned by self-ID, for good reason. They have not suffered generations of oppression on the basis of their biological sex. They have no need of sex-based protections such as those enshrined in the Equality Act of 2010. They have much less need for domestic violence refuges, segregation in sporting competition, restricted shortlists to encourage their participation in politics.

But gender self-ID is fatally flawed in principle. A London Labour activist David Lewis was suspended for claiming to be a “women on a Wednesday”. There have been multiple cases of male-bodied prisoners identifying as women then abusing fellow inmates in women’s jails. These may be outliers, but you can’t hold both that self-ID should be unquestioningly accepted and also acknowledge exceptions to that. Yet at the Scottish Parliament, MSPs in the SNP, Labour and the Green Party all say the principle of self-ID is not up for debate. I have been told this issue is trivial, affecting a tiny number of people. Transpeople are estimated to be just one per cent of the population.

But this also affects 51 per cent of the population. The Scottish Government has quietly passed a law about representation on public boards which redefines “woman”, stating saying that the term encompasses anyone who says they are a woman. Does this mean that “woman” – which previously referred specifically to a person born with a particularly biological sex, with the potential to conceive and gestate babies – is now, effectively meaningless? Does that matter?

Does it matter – given the small numbers involved – that people born as men will now be able to join all-women shortlists, win prizes previously on offer to biological women, distort statistics on pay discrimination? What about leading girl guides on camping trips, or completing against women and girls in their chosen sports? I don’t know. My concern here is that it has been enormously difficult to ask these questions without being accused of transphobia.

As a science fiction fan, I am conscious we may be moving towards a future where all concepts of sexuality and gender become more fluid and sex-based protections become less important, even irrelevant. But we are not there yet. From the White House to the BBC pay gap, you don’t have to look far to see that the protections won by women over generations of struggle remain precarious.

As a reporter I have spent my life writing in support of excluded minorities. I am not transphobic and believe trans people are a very vulnerable group in need of protection.

I may be wrong to be concerned about the impact of these social shifts on women. But I am not wrong to be alarmed by the closing down of debate. Instead of accusations of transphobia and hate, we need to find the space for a respectful discussion of these issues.