Sunday, March 27, 2016

Bare-chestedness

In Sweden in late 2007, a group of women decided to challenge authority, and won the ability to go for a swim in a community swimming pool, minus their bikini tops. A video of the event shows about 10 women and about half as many men taking turns diving off the board, and throwing a polo ball around, all innocently having a good time. The story included a reference to a blog called T.E.R.A., the Topfree Equal Rights Association, based in Canada.

This, I thought, was the start of true equality for women. Sure, women got the vote 90-some years ago, they can now own property, they can sign their own name to things (instead of Mrs. [insert husband's name]), they can wear pants to work (only 30 to 40 years ago), all that stuff. But while men got the ability to remove their tops in public -- and only relatively recently, in the mid-1930s -- women still could not. I regularly began checking the tera.ca website for updates, and looked for people near and far who thought this was a good idea. There were not many. In seven years of honest looking, only a couple of related stories made the news, and all of those were negative.

Here in Pittsburgh, virtually 100% of women think it is illegal to walk around without a top on, and would be arrested for indecent exposure if they tried. Actually, the first part is false. No, it is not illegal to go around bare from the waist up. Nor is it in a lot of other places. New York's indecent exposure law was overturned in 1992. Washington, D.C., cleared the way in 1986. Ontario, Canada, similarly overturned its law over 20 years ago when one woman defied the law, got arrested, then fought it successfully in a series of court decisions. There are actually too many places to list where it is legal, though few women are willing to try it.

But there is another way to do it, the way that has been started in Pittsburgh, and earlier, Philadelphia. Pennsylvania state law, which applies in both places, defines indecent exposure as exposing genitalia.

18§3127. Indecent exposure. (a) Offense defined.-- A person commits indecent exposure if that person exposes his or her genitals in any public place or in any place where there are present other persons under circumstances in which he or she knows or should know that this conduct is likely to offend, affront or alarm.

Breasts are not genitalia.

This goes hand in hand with the state Constitution guaranteeing equal treatment of the sexes.

§28.  Prohibition against denial or abridgment of equality of rights because of sex.
Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania because of the sex of the individual.

And there you have it. Men, for decades, have been able to go around shirtless, and nobody has said boo about it. Sure, put a shirt on to go into a store, ride a bus, whatever. Plenty of reasons to wear a shirt, and few men contest that they have to do so. All that women are asking for is equal treatment. If a man can ride a bike shirtless, so should a woman. If a man can lie on a blanket in the grass in a public park, or throw a frisbee around, without a shirt on, so should a woman.

Under the law, equal means equal, all the time, without exception. If it's already OK for a man to go shirtless someplace, exactly the same freedom will be provided without regard to gender. It is not even a matter of "women can, too", it is more a "does not matter what the gender of the person is" situation. Please understand, it is not that first men got to, then women got to do it, too, it's that women and men are recognized as equals under the law, then we go from there, whatever it is.

Of course, what the law says does not equate to what is socially acceptable. That is the matter at hand here, and since virtually 100% of people think the law means something else, it is at the level of the police that the first chink in the armor must be made. In order not to be arrested for supposed indecent exposure, you have to start with the police, and you do not start with the street-level cop. You start at the top. You get as high up in the organization as you can, ideally the chief of police, and get agreement what the law is, and have them agree that females' bare chests are not genitalia, and thus exempt from discussion of indecent exposure.

Then you indicate you will be at a certain place and time, and you go there, and you act in a peaceful manner, with the women in attendance bare-chested. Invariably, someone will call the police, and the police will make an appearance, because they have to when called. But a couple of quick phone calls -- preceded by discussion with their superiors -- and the females are free to go on their way, whether walking down the street or continuing their frisbee game or sunning themselves on their blanket.

That is the method. Once we have the police no longer harassing women for something that is legal, we can establish women's ability to practice that. Once that is done in enough places, enough times, it will seem to become normal. You can only be shocked by something unusual once. Eventually, it does become normal, just as interracial couples did a couple decades ago, just as same-gender couples are doing now. In short, educating the general public. But back to Pittsburgh, here and now.

We started this process in Pittsburgh in a very real way on Saturday, March 26, 2016.

Back in December, the woman behind the blog Breasts Are Healthy (http://breastsarehealthy.wordpress.com), who calls herself Ginger Bread (she's a natural redhead) contacted upper-level police in Pittsburgh, and met with them face to face. All she asked for was agreement that a bare-chested female was not in violation of 18§3127. It took them over three months to get back to her, but eventually they did, and agreed that that was so.

And that's where I came in. We had been in contact several times, but this time, direct action was going to happen. She and her fiancé made a trip to Pittsburgh, and stayed with another woman I know through bike circles. I had, in fact, put the two in touch with one another after friending the one on Facebook following a bike ride.

They made arrangements for another visit. (Ginger Bread lives along the ocean coast of Maryland, about a seven-hour drive from Pittsburgh.) In the interim, we tossed around a few ideas of where to make an appearance, and took into account that while it would be sunny and no wind, it would be a bit chilly, 55-60F/12-15C. To do this on a day when it would be any colder would send a message of protest more than comfort, and she did not want to arouse too much scrutiny. That it would be on a religious holiday weekend (Easter) further increased our feeling of the need to be careful.

We chose a quiet spot in Frick Park, along a trail, away from crowds. Fully clothed, the four of us biked through a busy play area, and locked the bikes near the tennis courts, then hiked to the trail in a valley. Some other people were already bouncing a volleyball over a net in a level green spot, so we went well off to the side. There was foot traffic, a constant stream of walkers and joggers, the occasional bike rider. Lots of dogs. We had an ideal balance of busy but secluded.

We set up a couple of video cameras to capture any activity, and set out a blanket for the women to stretch out on. The first few minutes, they still were fully clothed, and as expected, nobody paid any attention to us, while the two men tossed around a frisbee. But 10 minutes in, off came the shirts.

Guess what: Nobody paid any attention to us, still. I think half the people walking by didn't even notice the women's attire. The other half, as Ginger Bread often points out, were either neutral or positive. Even after the women stood up to join the frisbee game, still hardly anybody paid much attention. One couple stopped to talk, and were rather surprised when we could quote the relevant statute, chapter and verse, and explain its meaning.

Someone, though, called the cops. We knew they would arrive sometime, as she had actually spoken face to face at the Zone 4 station beforehand. What we (at least I) did not expect is that the cops did not even talk to us. One cruiser rolled past slowly, not stopping, and a couple minutes later, two on foot came up the path. They paused maybe 100 feet away, and we could see them talking on their phones. We could lip-read, and almost hear the conversation. "Really? That's OK? All right then." And they turned around and walked away. The look on their faces was precious.

And that, folks, is how you effect social change. One chink in the armor.

Of course, there is much, much work to be done yet. This is just one shift at one zone command. There are several hundred police, and many levels of authority. Official training will be necessary for the entire force. And that's just the city; we have dozens of suburban police departments, too, as well as squads on college campuses and other jurisdictions. Someone at some point is likely to back-pedal. Eventually the media will pick up on it, and then, of course, the proverbial brown stuff will hit the spinny thing. All that is yet to come.

In short, it's probably not a good idea yet for women to take to the streets en masse, sans shirts. Not, anyway, without proper understanding of Ginger Bread's approach, and knowing how to talk to cops. (Please read her blog!) It's still early, still a delicate subject. As I said, almost 100% of people don't know what the law actually means, and we haven't even gotten close to matters of misogyny and willful ignorance.

We have, however, made history. The police were called, showed up, looked at us, and walked away without incident. And that's all we're asking.

Edit, Monday, 28 March: Here are two videos showing the first half hour of our outing. In the first, the two women are quietly sunning themselves on a blanket. In the second, they get up to join the frisbee game with the men. Note that hardly anyone pays attention to us. In all of her other videos, this is pretty much standard fare.

5 comments:

  1. To effectively change social acceptability of a thing, you have to know where to start. For women to go about without a top, in Pittsburgh, we have started that process.

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  2. Here is Ginger Bread's blog post about the adventure.
    https://breastsarehealthy.wordpress.com/2016/04/04/peaceful-bare-chested-outing-in-pittsburgh/

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  3. Really interesting article, but I believe the movement to which you refer your first paragraph occurred in Sweden, not Norway.

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  4. Indeed, it was Sweden. Correction made. Thank you.

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  5. And now we also have Turtle's first-hand report on the experience!
    https://breastsarehealthy.wordpress.com/2016/04/10/turtles-own-words-going-bare-chested-in-pittsburgh/
    Three blog posts concerning one historic day in Pittsburgh. You can't get more definitive than that!

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