‘COME home where you belong” – that was the impassioned message from Nicola Sturgeon this week after she got wind of a mass exodus of young people from the SNP. “I know many of you personally, I considered you friends, I’ve campaigned alongside you,” she added. “You are a credit to our party and our country.”

She did not get into the nitty gritty about what exactly might have prompted “significant numbers” to publicly depart, instead simply acknowledging that some consider the SNP is not a “safe, tolerant or welcoming place for trans people” and emphasising that she takes a zero-tolerance approach to transphobia.

So what was the straw that broke the camel’s back on Wednesday? What could have given all of these young people the idea that the SNP is tolerant of transphobia? The Scottish Government has continually emphasised its commitment to reforming the Gender Recognition Act, and Nicola Sturgeon has repeatedly asserted that she sees no conflict between the principle of gender self-identification and the practical business of upholding women’s rights.

The latter position is, of course, controversial, for reasons that probably do not need to be rehashed again here.

READ MORE: SNP statement calls for 'open conversation' about transphobia accusations in party

The SNP tacitly acknowledged one specific conflict last year when its MSPs voted in favour of Johann Lamont’s amendment to the Forensic Medical Services Bill. This related to the right of sexual assault survivors to request that they be examined by a person of the same sex (as opposed to the same “gender”).

To most people this seems uncontroversial, but to others it was the thin end of the wedge, a dangerous acknowledgement that sometimes sex does matter. It allows for the possibility that there might be other exceptions. It means the oft-repeated mantra “transwomen are women, transmen are men” needs to have an asterisk attached.

SNP MSPs reportedly only backed the amendment due to threats of a rebellion, rather than concerns about how voters might view them blocking a move to give rape survivors more rights. However, most of those who grumbled on social media about this capitulation to “TERFs” (women who believe sex matters) had sufficient self-awareness not to use such a sensitive subject as a springboard for their public flouncing.

The trigger for this week’s departures appears to have been a 31-word amendment to the Hate Crime Bill tabled by Humza Yousaf. The Justice Secretary has for some time been attempting to reassure voters that this bill is uncontroversial, and that it merely aims to “modernise, consolidate and extend” existing hate crime law. However, the attempts at extension and modernisation attracted robust criticism, including from novelists, playwrights and performers who feared the legislation could stifle freedom of expression.

The bill introduces a new offence of “stirring up hatred”, and as originally drafted there was no need to prove an individual’s intention to do so. Instead it was sufficient that the stirring up of hatred was “a likely consequence” of whatever it was they were saying or doing (something police and prosecutors were not at all confident about assessing).

Last year the Government backed down and made changes, meaning only those who intend to stir up hatred will be liable to prosecution, but many are still concerned about the reach of the bill, especially in relation to the hot-button issue of transgender identity and the uncompromising ideology that underpins it.

WATCH: Nicola Sturgeon speaks out against accusations of transphobia in SNP

There are, of course, many people who are sick to the back teeth of hearing and talking about this issue – not least feminists, who would much rather be focusing their attention on issues such as domestic abuse and child sexual exploitation, particularly given the huge risk factor of lockdown. Most independence supporters are dismayed that what appears to be a niche issue has taken on so much importance that the First Minister is taking time away from tackling the pandemic to record a video about it to placate young activists.

But there is, of course, a world of difference between being sick of hearing about something and believing that people should be criminalised for talking about it.

Many feared the Hate Crime Bill could be used to shut down legitimate debate about gender identity ideology – particularly in relation to child protection, sexual offending and the maintenance of single-sex spaces such as prisons, hospital wards and women’s refuges. Others dismissed such fears, suggesting these women were being hysterical or were simply outraged at the prospect of their hateful behaviour being curtailed.

It seems Yousaf has taken on board these concerns, as his amendment clarifies that “behaviour or material is not to be taken to be threatening or abusive solely on the basis that it involves or includes discussion or criticism of matters relating to transgender identity.”

Some activists are determined to have it both ways. When women expressed fears that the Hate Crime Bill could be used to prosecute them simply for discussing this ideology – because doing so might make trans people feel “invalidated” or “unsafe” – they were told the answer was to stop promoting hate. Now that the bill is being amended to ensure non-hateful free speech is being protected, those who were hoping to shut them up are livid. Getting women banned from Twitter just doesn’t compare with getting them taken to court.

A group of people who regularly endorse messages such as “all cops are bastards” are now outraged that the police won’t be able to arrest women just for having conversations about the impact of legislation on their own rights and those of their children. So maybe not all cops then, lads? At this rate we’re going to run out of asterisks.

Yousaf seemed confused by the reaction, believing some people had muddled up his amendments with those of Tory MSP Liam Kerr. What he perhaps does not yet understand is that when it comes to being a “trans ally” there is no room for equivocation, let alone anything that looks like capitulation. He is learning the hard way that #nodebate means exactly that.

Some will no doubt argue – with completely straight faces – that Yousaf himself is stirring up hatred simply by legislating to ensure that discussion of gender identity ideology should not be a criminal offence. Any attempts by the SNP to define transphobia will likely be deemed transphobic too.

The party need to realise that whatever they do, it will never be enough. And that some of those who have left the SNP were perhaps not a credit to their country after all.