Topless in the Name of Gender Equality

Jordan Bissell

Photo credit: Jordan Bissell
Photo credit: Jordan Bissell

Duluth, MN - On Sunday, August 28, a group of people gathered in Leif Erikson Park to make a statement about gender equality, in solidarity with over 60 other cities in the country who held demonstrations the same day. Lead by the organization Go Topless, many cities held celebrations of equality in places where its legal for women to be topless, however other cities held protests in places where its still illegal, like Duluth. The annual event was established in 2007 by the American organization Go Topless, originally founded in Nevada, by Claude Vorilhon, now know by the name Rael. Now in 2016, Go Topless has supported events and chapters all over the country, as well as overseas. They intentionally coordinate the national U.S. events to happen the nearest Sunday of the year to August 26, Women’s Equality Day. On this day in 1920, Women were awarded the right to vote, and in 1971 U.S. Congress named August 26 National Women’s Equality Day.
So, what does this event look like in Duluth, MN? We were curious, and went to check it out. As we arrived in Leif Erikson Park, we quickly realized the protesters were by far, not the only ones visiting the park that day. Individuals, groups of teens, and families were everywhere, as you’d expect of the park on a sunny summer Sunday, but we could see the demonstrators across the field gathered in a group of 40 or so. A few Park Rangers were also passing through, but did not seem concerned with the protest group, despite the fact about half were women technically committing civil disobedience by having their nipples uncovered. Many females went topless, some sported tape over their nipples, and some were clothed. Many males also joined in the demonstration by doing the opposite, wearing brassieres or bikini tops over their “legal nipples”. They were also joined by trans and gender non conforming individuals. Despite rocking the boat a bit, and drawing some attention from onlookers, no one in the park seemed offended or intending to harass the protesters. All in all, they seemed to have a peaceful, uninterrupted demonstration.
When asked about Go Topless, local advocate Ariel Bonkoski said, “It’s about celebrating, or fighting for, the right to go topless. Men have that right, women should have that right too. If I’m too hot and want to take my shirt off, I should be allowed to. There is nothing sexual about that and there shouldn’t be.” Many women, like Bonkoski, feel that laws prohibiting females exclusively from showing their nipples, contribute to an over sexualized stigma about female breasts. Many of the participants in the protest agreed that women shouldn’t be treated differently than men in the eyes of the law, just because of a sexualized opinion that lead to what they would consider, an outdated law.
Rebekah Zedd enlightened me from her perspective, saying, “First of all, I think eliminating double standards between men and women is important, but it also has more personal meaning to me because I am a trans-woman, and I’m also a pretty big girl. So this is about body positivity to me, and also the legitimization of trans-bodies. I have fairly large breasts, but my legal gender marker hasn’t legally been changed yet. So, by a strict reading of the law, this is a man’s chest, and completely legal to be exposed, even though I have much larger breasts than most of the women here today. I just think it’s kind of ludicrous that once I have a court order (to be legally recognized as a women), my chest becomes illegal.” Another trans protester, Sebastian Nemec, held a sign that read, “I paid $10,000 for ‘legal’ nipples,” referring to his transition from female to male.
Some question what good it might do to stand in park using these techniques to challenge gender roles, but when asked, activist Gabrielle Dobson said, “Events like this are important because it’s not just about the idea of standing in a park, so we can go home and feel better about ourselves. It is about, standing in a park to raise awareness, liberate equality, and get more voices talking to our representatives.”