SHIRLEY-Anne Somerville says Scotland must "unite against transphobia" – but women who raise concerns over rights must not be accused of prejudice.

Speaking for the Scottish Government, the Equalities Secretary has spoken out in a new blog post as clamour over a leaked conversation between three women MSPs continues on social media.

The February exchange, which was taken from private messaging by an unknown source, was posted on Twitter by Jordon Henderson.

He previously worked for Community Safety Secretary Ash Denham, who was involved in the exchange with SNP backbencher Gillian Martin and party colleague Ruth Maguire, convenor of Holyrood's Equality and Human Rights Committee.

The conversation is seen to show frustration with Nicola Sturgeon's comment that she does not see “the greater recognition of transgender rights as a threat to me as a woman or to my feminism”.

That followed intense conversation amongst trans and women's groups in Scotland about the impact of proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act, and other related issues.

The conversation suggested Sturgeon was “a bit out of step with the feelings of her own group” of parliamentarians, and that these concerns had not been relayed to Somerville.

Since the leak, angry debate has raged on social networks, with many within the SNP stating their own positions.

In an appeal for calm yesterday, Somerville said: "The debate about the rights of transgender people is becoming very polarised. As Cabinet Secretary for Equalities, I have a duty to try to change that and to encourage respectful debate."

Declaring herself a "strong supporter of trans rights and equality", Somerville said she is also a "passionate feminist" and knows the progress made for women "can feel fragile".

In a carefully worded post, she went on: "Just as the First Minister has herself said in the past, I personally don’t feel conflict between my support for trans rights and my support for women’s rights.

"But I know that some do feel that conflict – and that the issues they are raising are not motivated by transphobia but by a concern, sincerely felt, that space hard won by women down the generations will be compromised.

"Government has a duty to understand and seek to address the concerns being raised. This is something I have sought to do since taking this post and to which I commit to continue to do."

Warning against "over-simplifying complex issues", Somerville went on: "It strikes me in listening to some of the concerns raised that, at their core, it is not so much a problem with the rights of trans women but instead a fear of men who abuse women.

"The fear is that some men will use trans equality as a Trojan horse to access women and do us harm.

"And I understand that. But it means the problem we face is not one of trans women wanting to feel safe and accepted – it is one of how we protect and safeguard women against potentially abusive men. That’s not a new problem in Scottish or global society – nor is it one created by trans women."

She concluded: "People raising genuine concerns about women’s rights shouldn’t suffer knee jerk accusations of transphobia.

"However, it is also impossible to deny that there is a considerable degree of transphobia in our society.

"I hope, therefore, that – whatever views any of us may hold on the relationship between trans rights and women’s rights – we will all unite against transphobia, just as we do against homophobia and any other form of prejudice and discrimination."