Topless Rights Movement Sees Women's Equality on Horizon

People participate in the GoTopless pride parade in Manhattan on Sunday in New York City.
By Steven Nelson | usnews

Naturists, feminists and members of an atheistic UFO religion believe it’s only a matter of time until they win women across the country the right to go topless on public beaches and other places where men are allowed to bare their chests.
Courtroom and town council fights are underway to expand topless rights, but supporters are wary of pushback in New York, where discomfort about painted topless women posing in Times Square for tips has led state and city officials to consider nipping at hard-won progress in the bastion of top-freedom.
The Big Apple hubbub inspired some rally-goers Sunday who participated in the annual nationwide protest called Go Topless Day, ahead of Wednesday’s Women’s Equality Day, which marks the anniversary of females gaining the right to vote in the U.S.
“In the 1920s, it was indecent to show your legs. [If the women] had painted their legs in Times Square and men were taking pictures with them, there’d be the same controversy!” says GoTopless President Nadine Gary, whose group organized the Sunday demonstrations.
“If the chest of a man is decent, the chest of a woman has to be decent, too,” she says. “It’s a matter of equality.”
New York's state court system for decades has allowed women to go topless in public and other states allow it as well through omission or court ruling. In states like Illinois and California that don't ban bare breasts, however, some localities do. 
A GoTopless activist currently is fighting in federal court against Chicago’s topless ban, arguing it's a constitutional right for women, and the group supports local council efforts to allow toplessness in Venice Beach, California.
This map created by GoTopless shows states that do not ban female toplessness in green and those with bans in red. Orange signifies uncertain status and some localities in green states have municipal bans.
This map created by GoTopless shows states that do not ban female toplessness in green and those with bans in red. Orange signifies uncertain status and some localities in green states have municipal bans. 
The pending Chicago case involves a $100 ticket given to Sonoko Tagami in 2014 by a female police officer. Her attorney, Kenneth Flaxman, says the matter, often litigated in state courts, probably won’t reach the U.S. Supreme Court, though he does believe it’s a clear matter of constitutional rights being quashed – both on First Amendment speech and 14th Amendment equal protection grounds.
“What we hope to do is enforce the Constitution,” he says. “It was speech. She wasn’t just interested in nude sunbathing, she was making the point Chicago has a stupid ordinance that should be changed.”
Flaxman says Chicago’s anti-topless law, in fact, makes display of cleavage illegal in the nation’s third-largest city.
Though social attitudes likely are softening to some degree, the pro-topless movement in the United States currently lacks the well-funded and well-organized advocacy organizations of other lobbies, such as those in favor of gay rights and marijuana legalization.
GoTopless, founded in 2007 and one of the most prominent supporters of the cause, is a project of the Raelian movement, which believes life on Earth was created scientifically by extraterrestrials mistaken for gods.
Another group, the Topfree Equal Rights Association, assists women in Canada and the U.S. who face difficulties going topless in public, but exists in a state of semi-dormancy.
A longtime adviser to TERA, Judy Williams, 72, says that on warm days in Vancouver, Canada, she enjoys driving without a shirt, and she believes the movement's on a trajectory for ultimate success, even with road bumps.
“What the hell difference does it make if they’re down to my navel? They’re my breasts,” she says. “I’m over the hill by society’s standards and I’m overweight by society’s standards, but who cares? This is where you live.”
In Canada, advocates have won with certainty the right to go topless in the provinces of British Columbia and Ontario. “Of course we don’t want to go into banks and restaurants top-free, but wherever men can be top-free, why cannot women be?” Williams says.
“Quit objectifying our breasts! Our breasts are for nurturing children, they are not sex objects,” says Williams, who has participated in topless protests in public parks but avoids events organized by Raelian-associated groups because of their beliefs.
Unlike some advocates, Williams isn’t particularly concerned that controversy over painted New York City women will roll back rights. That’s a somewhat different issue, she says, about commercializing women's bodies.
A younger feminist advocacy effort, Free the Nipple, originated with a feature-length film by director Lina Esco that's now available on Netflix.
Esco says her top priority is raising awareness about the issue and rallying support around the country, and she hopes to hire a full-time campaign manager in the near future.
“I'm so happy to see people are waking up," she says. "I'm watching the analytics every day."
Free the Nipple is a secular movement and doesn't intend to be seen as threatening, Esco says: "It's about desexualizing the female body and then the legalization of the nipple, but it's really about equality on all fronts."
The organizer says she's personally angry that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and other officials are concerned about painted ladies posing for pictures, but not about the so-called "Naked Cowboy" who for years has worn underwear in the same square.
"I'm just curious why he is so angry," she says, noting she sees it as hypocritical that many male politicians oppose public display of women's breasts while, she suspects, privately watching pornography or visiting strip clubs.
In New York, where the state’s Supreme Court granted women the right to appear partially nude in 1992, de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a fellow Democrat, have expressed unease about the Times Square women accepting tips. 
As a city task force considers how to deal with painted women, a New York state senator, Democrat Ruben Diaz – an evangelical minister who previously sought to legislate mandatory parenting classes – has proposed banning both men and women from going topless, with an exception for beaches.
There’s some precedent for banning men from taking off their shirts in public. In the 1930s, in fact, men were forced to cover up on many beaches.
In 1934, six men were fined $1 at Coney Island, New York, for swimming with their chests exposed.  In New Jersey, a 1936 mass demonstration of 42 topless men on the beach of Atlantic City, New Jersey, resulted in $2 fines. "We'll have no gorillas on our beach!" the city leaders reportedly declared. Those bans were soon after overturned.
“Eighty years later, here come the women!” says Gary. She grew up in France, where she recalls female toplessness being so common that nobody would think to tip a woman for a picture.

Though seemingly natural allies, topless rights groups and breastfeeding-in-public advocates don’t have much common ground, and many state laws allowing breastfeeding do so explicitly without extending broader rights.
“I am asked this question fairly often and the two issues are unrelated, both legally and socially,” says attorney J. Kathleen Marcus, who operates the website
“It is the suckling that people are most bothered by in the breastfeeding context,” she says, “and not the exposed breast. The political movements don't even acknowledge each other and represent very different populations.”
Gary sees things similarly. “What we’re saying is it’s legal even if you don’t have a baby latched onto your breast,” she says.
The GoTopless leader believes the U.S. is trending toward more liberal policies. “Little by little this is going to wear down. When you see so many, many breasts, it’s not like looking at Playboy, it’s just a human body,” she says.

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