For a woman who, only this week, was reprimanded for wading into the increasingly febrile transgender debate, you’ve got to applaud Tory police and crime commissioner Lisa Townsend for her sheer chutzpah.
‘If you’re a male who prefers to wear dresses, grow your hair long and you’d rather wear make-up, that’s great. You go for it, but that doesn’t make you a woman. I’ve said it before and I’ll go on saying it. It’s how an overwhelming number of my constituents feel,’ she says.
Lisa’s is a rare, defiant voice on an issue that’s become so politically charged that this week two Labour frontbenchers, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper and shadow minister for women Anneliese Dodds, were unable to define what a woman is.
The fact that Dodds struggled to answer the question on International Woman’s Day — and on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour — and Cooper the day after, only added to the irony.
Lisa’s is a rare, defiant voice on an issue that’s become so politically charged that this week
But while Ms Cooper refused to go ‘down the rabbit hole of defining what a woman is’, you get the sense that Lisa, the elected commissioner for Surrey, is more than happy to pay home visits to the entire cast of Watership Down.
‘How do we define it? My periods started when I was 13 and I needed to wear my first bra when I was 14,’ she says. ‘Those are experiences that absolutely contribute to me being a woman and allow me to sit down with another woman and have conversations like: “Oh God, I’m 42, so the perimenopause is probably just around the corner.”
‘You’ve got people like Professor — Lord — Robert Winston saying every cell in my body is female. Every cell in my husband’s body is male. There is no surgery, no hormones, no amount of documentation that gets you away from that.’
Like or loathe Lisa’s stance, you’ve got to admire her conviction given that this week she was reprimanded by a male-dominated panel of councillors for sharing a tweet written by author J. K. Rowling in December last year, suggesting that biologically male rapists are not female.
‘It is not a “niche” issue, it is not “hysterical” for women to be taking to the street about it,’ Lisa wrote. ‘We will not accept this gaslighting from men who keep telling us they are women or from those who enable them,’ she added to her retweet and posted it without a second thought.
Three men, including local Conservative MP Crispin Blunt, complained. The Surrey police and crime panel’s complaints sub-committee found that Lisa had not been ‘dignified or respectful’ to trans people. It demanded that she explain herself to the men who reported her over the tweet.
Three men, including local Conservative MP Crispin Blunt, complained. The Surrey police and crime panel’s complaints sub-committee found that Lisa had not been ‘dignified or respectful’ to trans people
‘For goodness sake,’ says an exasperated Lisa, clearly cut from the direct-speaking mould of the late former prime minister Margaret Thatcher. ‘Saying that my words as a woman are disrespectful because I’ve chosen to stand up for women who have been raped and telling me I have to explain myself to three men, particularly a male MP from my own party, who’ve complained about my language, is ridiculous.
‘It’s not the fact that these men, or anybody, think I’m wrong — they’re all perfectly entitled to think I’m stark raving mad, quite frankly — it’s the cancelling of a woman’s voice on an issue that really troubles a lot of women… and men.’
‘The debate’ is a rather kind way of describing the toxic battle that rages over a transgender person’s right to self-identify. Campaigners, particularly the lobby group Stonewall, insist anyone should be free to determine their own gender even if that means sending women born as men, and in some cases who still have male genitalia, into female jails or safe spaces such as women’s refuge centres and changing rooms.
According to Lisa, an overwhelming number of her female constituents are genuinely frightened. She says it was the single biggest issue in her inbox when she campaigned to be Surrey’s police and crime commissioner ten months ago.
She has since been a vocal supporter of women’s right to exclude biological males — be they transwomen or not — from female-only safe spaces. There are also concerns about the trans agenda being thrust down children’s throats in schools.
Such is the sheer nastiness surrounding the debate that she has received as many as 15 death threats. ‘I’ve had a lot of the “die TERF [trans exclusionary radical feminist]” threats and, “if I ever saw you I’d kill you”. The woke debate about trans rights is incredibly noisy because for some reason it’s perfectly acceptable to espouse the things they say. It’s perfectly acceptable to fly in the face of science and say trans women are women. It’s perfectly acceptable to call women like me TERFs.
‘It seems perfectly OK, in some quarters, to put up signs saying “Die TERFs” and all the awful, awful things you see, but it’s not acceptable for a woman to say: “I don’t believe transwomen are women. I do believe there’s a difference between sex and gender and that females not just deserve, but have a right, to have our own safety and protected spaces where males should not be allowed.”
‘What many would think is a mainstream view has become something we can’t say without facing this ridiculous process.’
The ridiculous process actually began in August last year when Lisa, then three months into her new job, spoke out in our sister paper The Mail on Sunday against Stonewall for promoting ‘dangerous transgender ideology that threatens the safety of our women and girls’.
She wanted Surrey Police to stop employing the lobby group. Lisa is neither a radical feminist nor a TERF. In fact, she’s a very sensible lapsed Catholic who has a husband of 12 years, Ben, who has taken part in Pride marches to support equal marriage, has many dear gay and lesbian friends and is hugely sympathetic to the trans community.
She’s aware of their needs and works hard with Surrey’s sexual and violent crime liaison officers to protect them. She just doesn’t believe a transwoman’s rights ‘trump’ the rights of a biological woman.
‘Speaking to women in domestic abuse refuges, they do not want [biological] males in their refuge however they’ve identified,’ she says.
‘For some women — and I’ve spoken to them — just the sound of a male voice is enough to re-traumatise them. The refuges work incredibly hard to make sure that doesn’t happen. They don’t have male window cleaners or male workmen.
‘Surrey Police do so much work around sexual abuse and sexual victims. It would be very disappointing if we let all that go by allowing them to be re-traumatised by something as simple as a male voice.’
When she first aired these views, Mr Blunt contacted her.
Mr Blunt, who as well as being MP for Reigate is chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Global LBGT+ Rights, called her again shortly after she retweeted J. K. Rowling’s message in December
‘One of his concerns was that, me saying what I said and being an elected Conservative, it would be perceived that was how the party thought. He felt by saying what I had I was being transphobic.
‘I said for me it wasn’t a trans issue. It was a women’s rights issue and it was about protecting female space while also making sure the trans community also have all the support they need. I thought, by the end of the call, we agreed to disagree.
‘I said: “Crispin, you take one view, that’s perfectly OK. I take another. As a party, we’re a broad church. There are people on both sides of this issue and we’ve taken different sides, that’s all.” ’
Mr Blunt, who as well as being MP for Reigate is chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Global LBGT+ Rights, called her again shortly after she retweeted J. K. Rowling’s message in December.
Quoting from George Orwell’s 1984, the author had tweeted: ‘War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength,’ before adding: ‘The Penised Individual Who Raped You Is a Woman.’
After Lisa’s retweet, which included the hashtag #IStand WithJKRowling, she says Mr Blunt ‘essentially said: “I would like you to stop.” He didn’t reference that tweet. He said: “I’m disappointed you’re still talking about this issue. Please stop.”
‘I was frustrated. I said: “Crispin, I’m going to be honest. I’m getting a little bit fed up with middle-aged men telling me I can’t speak about what, for me, is a women’s rights issue and is something constituents are writing to me about.”
‘He said: “In which case, I’m sorry for what I’m about to do,” and ended the call.
‘Nearly a week later, I discovered the “what I’m about to do” was to put an official complaint to the police and crime panel.’
Lisa was in Edinburgh on International Women’s Day when she received the panel’s decision. ‘I wasn’t angry. I just thought it was ridiculous,’ she says, rolling her eyes.
Mr Blunt is one of three men she must write to. A second complainant simply said ‘Lisa Townsend is transphobic’ and the other took issue with Ms Rowling’s tweet.
‘The particular point that Crispin made to the panel was that he’d “counselled me” but I’d done it anyway, therefore he’d had to complain.’
Lisa, who worked for Mr Blunt in Westminster in her 20s, laughs wryly. After all, the MP is ‘in no shape or form’ her boss and she hasn’t received a word of complaint from the Conservative Party.
‘They could throw me out of the party, but I haven’t had any complaints. I actually had an overwhelming number of messages of support from Conservative MPs and my constituents. I’ve had flowers, too. One bouquet, in suffragette colours, arrived with a card, saying “From the women”.
Lisa has since been a vocal supporter of women’s right to exclude biological males — be they transwomen or not — from female-only safe spaces.
‘I am a woman. I like expressing myself as a woman. I like wearing nice dresses and I have a fantastic collection of lipsticks. But the wearing of fabulous lipsticks and the high heels isn’t the thing that makes me a woman. If I decide one day to put on a pair of flat shoes and wear no make-up that doesn’t stop me being a woman.
‘Just as if a man wants to wear high heels, he can — without appropriating female spaces and what it means to be a woman.
‘What I get in my inbox constantly is women saying: “I can’t speak up because if I say anything I will be ostracised or I won’t get a promotion and might even get a dismissal, so thank you for doing so.”
‘I find the fact a male Conservative MP has used his position to attempt to silence a woman on an issue that, he must surely know, matters to an awful lot of people — not just his constituents but people throughout the United Kingdom — is…’ She shakes her head.
‘Do you know what? For every person who complains, that’s another year I’ll keep talking about it. This attempt to try to stop the debate altogether is sinister. But I’m an eternal optimist.
‘I think the pendulum [of political correctness] has swung too far but we will come back to a place that’s ultimately sensible — but we have to keep talking about it.’