EXPRESSING concern about further delay to reform of the Gender Recognition Act (GRA), Vic Valentine of the Scottish Trans Alliance (STA) made a comment which cuts to the heart of present tensions: “The last 20 years have seen our rights improved based on two key principles: that how government and services treat trans people must reflect our lived identity, not the bodies we were born with, and that trans people deserve adequate privacy about our gender history” ("Trans fears over more discussion", The Herald, July 29).

This is a statement of rights well beyond what the law currently provides. It does, however, reflect changes of practice on the ground. The conflict between law and practice explains much of the unhappiness on both sides.

The Gender Recognition Act 2004 created new rights of the sort Vic describes only for those with a Gender Recognition Certificate, available for now only if certain medical and other criteria are met. Around 500 people in Scotland have one. Although many sincerely believe otherwise, no new general legal rights have been created based simply on identity. Indeed, this is why GRA reform is about much more than a piece of paper.

However, as we show in research published this week, in recent years self-defined gender identity has replaced physical or legal sex widely across the public sector, well ahead of any change to the law. We look in detail at prisons policy and the census, but there are many other examples, from the NHS to criminal justice statistics.

The change has not happened by accident. We chose prisons as a case study not least because, as James Morton of the STA has explained, campaigners “strategised that by working intensively with the Scottish Prison Service to support them to include trans women as women on a self-declaration basis within very challenging circumstances, we would be able to ensure that all other public services should be able to do likewise”. These changes have been introduced without any systematic analysis of effects on others, particularly women and girls, and until very recently without public discussion. As it becomes clearer how much gender identity has already replaced sex, in areas as varied as prisons, shared sleeping accommodation, changing spaces and sports, women have reasonably begun to ask questions as to who considered what the impact might be on them. The answer largely appears to be no-one.

What is therefore felt genuinely by one group to be a series of new hard-won rights, based on gender identity, to another feels too often like an erosion of existing rights, based on sex, which has been agreed behind closed doors, with women left on the outside.

The lack of due diligence, democratic oversight or scrutiny surrounding recent changes represents a serious failure of policy-making across the public sector and leaves ministers and MSPs dealing with two groups, both feeling vulnerable and let down. That could have been avoided by more transparent, thoughtful policy-making from the start. The challenge for government now is to change the culture of policy-making in this area, and steer a way through in which everyone can see their rights being valued.

Dr Kath Murray and Lucy Hunter Blackburn, University of Edinburgh.

MARK Smith may believe that he pre-empted criticism of his article ("Court ruling that shows why SNP trans reform will happen", The Herald, July 29) by admitting some might find it misogynistic. Perhaps he should reflect that if one sets out to alternately gaslight and insult half the population, one may well be seen as a dinosaur.

To address some of his points:

Safeguarding is based on worst-case scenarios. Most appalling crime is, thankfully, rare but we do not abandon all attempts to prevent it. Rights do, indeed, have to be balanced but he seems to assume that the right of any male to usurp spaces and services provided to women on the basis that females are still at a social disadvantage, should weigh heavier. Furthermore, it would appear that he believes the rights of predators to access female bodies trumps women and girls' rights to safety, dignity and privacy. Funnily enough, in his assessment of balance, he does not argue that anyone has the "right" to self-identify into another protected class – race, disability etc – which would provide a more useful comparator.

He offensively suggests women's rights campaigners are gatekeeping femininity. This is beyond ridiculous. Feminists believe all gendered expectations should be broken down so women and men can dress and express themselves freely. Many of us look back fondly to the androgenous, beautiful creatures of the 70s and 80s. It is those who believe gendered preferences are real who seek to exclude feminine males from men's space or tell sensitive or gay boys that they are really girls and are pushing butch lesbian schoolgirls onto puberty blockers.

Shockingly, we do not need men to lead our movements and marches. Mr Smith claims he can "mansplain" women's rights because, apparently, all women's rights activists are "straight" – that he's unaware so many prominent voices are those of lesbians, shows how ill-informed he is.

Perhaps he should reflect that if conservative North Carolina, like Iran (which he conveniently omits) is positive on allowing gender change to reflect social conformity, it may be a refection of their less than progressive approach to homosexuality and women's rights.

"Progressive" sexism is still sexism. Even if it hides its ugly face behind a rainbow mask.

Susan Smith, Forwomen.Scot, Edinburgh EH10.