I’VE covered many public meetings. Most of them political, many of them feminist, plenty of them fraught. Attending one had never made me nervous, but my hands were shaking as I took my seat at A Women’s Place UK’s Edinburgh discussion on the Gender Recognition Act (GRA). A small but vocal crowd of protesters formed our welcoming committee. Their faces were covered, they banged saucepans and waved placards – one equating attendees with fascists. I didn’t feel like I was doing anything illicit, yet here I was, in a political face-off outside a venue known for craft fairs and tea.

Recent clashes have coloured what otherwise would have been a benign event about legislation. The debate over what “woman” means and the consequences of an expanded definition has intensified. Those with questions or protestations against been labelled bigots, fascists and nazis by some. Those loaded words wouldn’t have fallen on women gathering even a few years ago. But the mood has changed.

Social media has helped trans people to connect, increase visibility, find allies and a common voice. The same has happened with the feminist movements. It might seem that the issue of trans rights has mushroomed into public consciousness overnight, but it has existed for decades. It’s just been beyond the sightline of most. Language is changing fast. A clumsy but well-meaning question might see you full fathom five in an online war. Many find themselves rounded up by hyperbole and bad faith, and shepherded into an ideological pen by the political zeitgeist.

I missed the start of the meeting, but what I saw was calm. We heard from a woman whose partner transitioned and the mother of a teenage girl who identified as a boy for years. A de-transitioned woman spoke up, as did teachers with a desire to balance the rights of girls with those of trans and non-binary teens. There were women’s service users with questions and concerns. We discussed the reality of growing up with a female body in Scotland.

One woman spoke about her childhood sexual assault. She explained that puberty confronted her with the inescapable reality of her womanhood. She began hating her body. It had become a monument to her trauma. As she cried, and some cried with her, the din of pots, pans and chants echoed through the hall. It struck me how the reality of this quiet exchange was lost to those outside. It made me wonder: what do they think we’re doing in here? How can we bridge the gap between expectation and reality?

I’m concerned with the preservation of women’s rights. That includes the right to organise and to sex-segregated spaces. I’m also concerned with the rights, safeguarding and acceptance of trans people in a society that enforces gender norms. GRA reform could mean changes to those rights and spaces. It’s natural that women have questions, and I don’t believe the majority of concern comes from a hateful or phobic position. Changes could have a negative impact on trans people, and many have questions there that deserve a hearing. Equating questions with the regimes responsible for mass genocide is jejune, reductive and undemocratic.

The discussion on sex-segregated space is suffering a nuance deficit. It has unhelpfully been distilled to a “bathroom panic” – an American import – by the limitations of online debate. In Scotland, trans people have been using the toilet that matches their gender for years. The sky hasn’t fallen in.

Sex-specific spaces have many forms and many purposes. Toilets and changing rooms aren’t places for healing and bonding, nor are they the centre of any great social purpose. They’re brief shelters from the male gaze and from potential sexual violence whilst changing or toileting.

Meetings have a different purpose – to organise as a class for change, to bond, to offer healing and intimacy away from the integrated world. Different spaces, different contexts. There are domestic violence refuges, homeless shelters, hospital wards, sports teams, schools, and countless other spaces where sex segregation has been a sticking-plaster fix for women and girls living in a patriarchal society. They’re not perfect, but they serve an important function. If that needs to change, we need open discussion.

To condemn all of these spaces as hateful and exclusionary disappears all context, and the very real and present issue of male violence and sexual violence. Violence committed not just against women, but children, trans women, trans men and non-binary people. This is why we all need a say. We have a common concern shaping our politics.

Let’s be clear: women don’t want to start policing what’s in a stranger’s underwear. This is private. To ask for discussion on sex segregation is to say that male sexual violence is a real danger and we need to understand what change means. We have systems in place to safeguard us physically and emotionally – how will they be affected? We can only be assured GRA reform works for everyone with discussion. Only then will we ensure trans rights are upheld at no cost to the rights of women and girls, and that women’s and girls’ rights don’t cost trans people safety and dignity.

On Friday I met James Morton, who has led the Scottish Trans Alliance for ten years. I wanted to cut through the noise online and was pleased that he reached out to me. Over coffee, we lamented how social media has shaped gender discourse, agreeing the Twitter experience is somewhere between scratchings on a bathroom door and mass road-rage.

Two hours flashed past as we talked about the need for pragmatic rather than ideological solutions. How emotional intelligence and empathy will get us further than mistrust and bad faith. We discussed the rise of Trump, Brexit and how the polarising of the political climate has left many on a knife edge, scared for the future. It unearthed many commonalities, as I’d hoped, that we’ve lost online: that gender can hurt, male violence is real, and that everyone deserves to grow up safe, with self-confidence, feeling free to be themselves.

My radical feminist politics weren’t shut down. My assumptions were challenged and my questions were answered with patience and grace. James talked me through self-ID from a trans perspective. I felt heard and I hope he did too. He works closely with women’s organisations here, and believes GRA reform won’t impact women’s rights – “if I thought it would, I wouldn’t be asking for it”.

There are unpleasant people hiding in every radical movement that colour it for those outside. All feminists aren’t saints, and neither are all trans people. It’s incumbent on those of us within our movements to recognise that, and model something more humane. Tallying up the barbs and continuing the war of attrition online is a distraction.

There is a desire here to listen to one another and to get this right for all. Some won’t be able to put feelings aside, but there are those of us on both sides that would like to.