Topless protesters march for equal rights in Midtown



Protesters march along Broadway near 55th Street. Photo: Keenan Chen.

There are hundreds of parades in New York City each year, but the GoTopless March is not a typical one. On Aug. 28, over a hundred women and their male supporters took off their tops and marched bare-chested across Midtown Manhattan to promote women’s equality.

The parade was among 60 similar events held by GoTopless, a Las Vegas-based nonprofit that has been organizing topless events since 2007. In addition to the one in New York, topless parades took place in Chicago, San Francisco and Vancouver, Canada in recognition of Women’s Equality Day.

The marchers began to gather at Columbus Circle. Several people carrying signs repeated, “If men can go topless in a park or on a beach, why can’t women?”

Nadie Gary, the president of GoTopless, said organizing such parades help remind people of the discrimination against women. “The philosophy is humans are born equal. Whether you have a vagina or penis, you should be treated equally,” she said.

In 2005, Jill Coccaro, a topless advocate who also goes by the name of Phoenix Feeley, was arrested in New York for appearing bare-breasted in public. Citing a 1992 state court’s decision upholding a woman’s right to be topless in public, Coccaro sued the city and later won a civil rights settlement.

Gary said Coccaro’s lawsuit inspired her to organize topless parades, launching  the first major ones in New York and in the beachfront community of Venice, California. She described it as a growing movement. “Women are coming out of their cage, the cage of repression,” she said.

When the parade kicked off at noon, about 40 topless activists took photos with onlookers. Two giant, pink, breast-shaped balloons with the phrase “equal topless right” were attached to a make-shift float, as marchers chanted “free your breasts, free your mind.” Their destination was Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, the designated picketing area on 48th Street and 2nd Avenue.

Marisse Caissy, 56, of Montreal, Canada, is an advocate for the GoTopless March and regularly participates in parades. “A woman of my age, we went to the battles for salary and conditions, and access to jobs,” she said, “It’s like voting rights, we need to be there.”

Joseph Dunsay of River Edge, N.J., also marched shirtless. After finding out about this event on social media, he decided to participate. “I’m supporting gender equality and the law, and also standing up for the First Amendment right,” said the former high school teacher.

Like hundreds of people watching from the sidewalk, Sara Smith took photos with her phone. “I don’t know what to think. I’m from West Virginia and this is whole other world for me,” said Smith. “But it’s good to watch.”

Jean Bucaria, Deputy Director for the National Organization of Women in New York, a women’s advocacy group, said feminism can “take on many forms,” and the topless parade could be one of them. “For some women that may mean walking down a city street without any shirt, the same way that men may do. For other women, that may mean the freedom of wearing a burkini at the beach,” said Bucaria in an email.

But not everyone seems to agree. “I just can’t make a connection with freeing my nipple and women’s equality,” said Grace Lipscomb of Westchester. “I mean, if it was for pay raise, education or whatever,” she said.

Smith said women already enjoy the same rights as men. “A woman can get a job as much as a man can, just whatever your background is and knowledge,” she said. “Where I live, everybody is equal.”

According to NYPD, as many as 150 people participated in the march. At least 20 of them were Canadians. “We come down to lend them a hand,” said Caissy.

Gary believes the parades will become bigger. “In nine years, we have 60 cities participating,” she said. “Every day I wake up, there are more activists who ask me, ‘what do I do to organize in my town.’”