CAROLINE McAllister has been called a lot of things. As the SNP’s new Women’s Convenor, she wants to end the shouting and start talking.

The depute leader of West Dunbartonshire Council, she’s also the founder of the SNP Women’s Pledge group, which opposes aspects of the Scottish Government’s planned reforms of the Gender Recognition Act.

The group and its members have drawn significant criticism, branded bigots and transphobes amidst the heated and often abusive online debate which has surrounded the equalities issue, and much has been written about the way the issue has split parts of the SNP membership – some of whom are not engaged with the debate and see it as damaging to party unity and the independence cause.

It’s also been said that the Women’s Pledge group, which saw 12 members elected to the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) last weekend, wants to undermine the party’s leadership and even bring it down.

“The Women’s Pledge has absolutely no intention of bringing Nicola Sturgeon down,” she says. “She is our leader, she’s articulate, she represents Scotland on the world stage fantastically.

“Nicola Sturgeon and her government have worked really hard, they’ve brought forward lots of really positive policies that will enhance families’ lives. I celebrate what the government has done – addressing period poverty, the increase in childcare, that’s massive. These are really progressive policies that have been brought forward by an SNP government.”

Raised in Ayrshire, McAllister grew up with three brothers in the only Irish family in the village. She “burned with injustice” when she was told she couldn’t become a footballer or a woodwork teacher “because I was a girl”, and at the sectarianism the family faced.

“I hated on one level that my parents were Irish, because if they weren’t, we wouldn’t be getting this abuse,” she says. “On a Saturday night when the pubs came out, three or four men would stand outside our house singing sectarian songs at the top of their voices, then on the Sunday they’d be knocking at the door asking my dad if he could he get them a job at the mine the next day. I would ask him why he did it and he’d say ‘these people aren’t educated, they don’t really understand what they’re doing and they have a wife and kids at home that need feeding’. His attitude helped us not to grow up bitter.”

Moving to London after leaving school broadened her horizons and she became “very engaged” in equal opportunities issues. “I hate stereotypes, I hate the fact that people are squeezed and bent out of shape to go into boxes,” she says. “That causes us damage because we’re trying to be something that we’ll never be, so we’re constantly left with disappointment. Just let people be who they are, wear what they want.”

McAllister’s group was set up last year to campaign against a law change which would allow any person to legally become the opposite sex without undergoing medical assessment, hormone treatment or surgery. Advocates of reform, including the SNP’s Young Scots for Independence (YSI) and LGBT+ wing Out For Independence, say that it would remove barriers to transitioning and instil dignity in the process for transgender people.

The planned reforms were paused due to the pandemic, but have not been scrapped.

Opponents of the Women’s Pledge group say it is in conflict with similar changes enacted in other countries, harmful to LGBTI+ Scots and increases intolerance against them. The group says it is trying to protect the sex-based rights of women from erosion in fields like medical care, housing, sports and more.

Members of YSI and Out For Independence are amongst those to have called the NEC results “horrific”, claiming young people will desert the party and Scotland is less safe for transgender people. MPs Kirsty Blackman and Alyn Smith have also recorded their discomfort at the change.

“That level of hyperbole is, I think, quite dangerous,” says McAllister, who is an independent mental health advocate. “Some of the language that’s used and the way it’s hyped up forgets that in amongst this there are young trans people getting a really negative message about what this is all about. These are vulnerable young people and the last thing I want is for them to have that message that they are despised, they are hated, they don’t exist, they’re not worthy. I find that really, really difficult because that’s not what the Women’s Pledge group is about. If we are defending women’s rights we are against trans rights – that’s just such nonsense.”

SHE continues: “I’m reading stuff about myself, thinking ‘not one of these people have made any attempt to engage with me’, despite me saying on numerous occasions – directly to some of my own parliamentarians – ‘please contact me, I’m more than happy to talk’,” she says. “This polarisation is damaging. It doesn’t help anybody.”

“I’ve got a lot of hard work ahead of me. My focus is going to be on finding common ground, engaging with as broad a church across the party as possible. My aim is to start with the grassroots. I would really like to engage with YSI and Out For Indy. I want to understand what their concerns are and I’m here to listen.

“I’ve got to know a lot of trans people, predominantly trans women, and they talk to me about deeply personal stuff. They’ve allowed me to understand a lot of arguments I wasn’t aware of. There are issues around discrimination for trans people that need to be addressed in healthcare, housing and employment. These are things women can get behind trans people in challenging. When we sit down and talk, we very quickly establish common ground.”