FARMINGTON, Maine — About two dozen men and women bared their torsos in downtown Farmington Friday to make the statement that if men can go shirtless, women should be able to as well.
Traffic was slowed to a crawl and the sidewalks were packed with onlookers as the marchers passed by.
Dozens of men and women of all ages watched and took pictures of the marchers, who made no attempt to hide themselves, even in the few instances when cat-calls and lewd comments rose above the din.
In fact, not hiding themselves was the point.
“It doesn’t bother me at all,” said Frances Smith of Farmington, when asked whether she noticed men staring at her bare chest. “Women should be able to walk down the street however they choose.”
Marina Langdon, who declined to say what town she is from, said that though she has never bared herself in public before, Friday’s march “didn’t feel awkward at all.”
The event was organized by Andrea Simoneau, a University of Farmington student from Brooks, who participated in a similar topless march in Portland earlier this month.
“I was inspired and liberated by the Portland march and what it was trying to accomplish,” said Simoneau on Thursday. “This is about women’s rights and equal rights. This is America, and I’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.”
Others disagree. Two Republican legislators from the Farmington area, Rep. Lance Harvell and Sen. Walter Gooley, said they have received numerous complaints from concerned constituents. They both acknowledged that female toplessness is not illegal in Maine, though they said they are both doing research about what measures could be enacted at the local level.
“This is probably going to have to be taken care of at the town level, but that’s not without its problems,” said Harvell. “A town could put an ordinance on its books, but that can be challenged and they’d probably have to fight it in court.”
The problem, according to the United States Constitution, is that any law must pertain to men and women equally. That means forcing women to cover their torsos would also have to apply to men.
“That’s problematic because none of us wants to see a teenage boy playing basketball outside get arrested,” said Harvell.
Maine’s law on indecent exposure outlaws the exposure of a person’s genitals — both men and women — in any public place or any place that can be seen in public.
The law makes no mention of breasts. Eric Conrad, a spokesman for the Maine Municipal Association, said the issue of public nudity comes up periodically.
“It’s usually triggered by a local event,” he said. “Municipalities do have the ability to regulate it, but they have to keep the first amendment in mind.”
Conrad said the association doesn’t keep data about how many municipalities have enacted indecent exposure ordinances, though he said there are “very few” Maine towns that have done so.
Gooley said he sees this as a morality issue. In a letter he sent to media outlets on Thursday, Gooley called on University of Maine at Farmington and the entire University of Maine System to be more aggressive about educating young people about why, in his words, public nudity is unacceptable.
“The way our society is going today, we seem to be losing our dignity,” Gooley said Friday. “I think the University of Maine at Farmington needs to look at its programs in that respect. It’s basically the college communities that are where something like this is happening.”
Celeste Branham, UMF’s vice president for student and community services, said the college has “no jurisdiction” over what its students do when they’re not on campus.
“This is a private action of a private citizen and we have no jurisdiction,” said Branham. “This is not a university sponsored or endorsed activity.”
UMF does have regulations about how students express themselves, and public nudity is not allowed. “We don’t permit it on the campus in terms of our buildings, classrooms or public events,” she said. “Here, it would be restricted.”
Harvell said he feared the women involved in Friday’s march — particularly Simoneau — would live to regret taking part.
“Someday, she’s going to get what’s coming to her,” said Harvel of Simoneau. “She’s going to apply for a job, and when they Google her name they’re going to get quite a resume.”
Simoneau said she’s not concerned about that. Langdon agreed.
“I don’t think I’d be interested in working for a place that would do that,” she said.
Not everyone in downtown Farmington supported the marchers’ message. Tamica Gilford of Wilton did not march topless, but she attended the event to support the equal rights message being sent. However, she complained loudly when she saw the young daughter of one of the marchers among the crowd.
“I am all for [marching topless], but anyone who has a child here is an unfit parent,” said Gilford. “There should be a rule against that.”
Elaine Graham of Farmington was a counter-protester at the event. She spent her time following Simoneau around, holding up a blue blanket to block the 22-year-old’s breasts.
“These girls are degrading themselves,” said Graham. “They’re showing a bad example for the younger girls. I don’t want a young girl to think she can go work in a topless bar and think that’s an OK life. They’re sending a very bad message.”
Asked if there were any others counter-protesting the march, Graham said she was not aware of any. “I’m a little disappointed that more church people aren’t here,” she said.
That people find bare breasts objectionable or immoral is what the marchers said they were trying to fight.
“There’s been a lot of push-back [from] people who are a bit more conservative,” said Simoneau. “Free speech is very important to extend to everyone, and the best thing we can do is to not engage with the counter-protesters. We’re just here to have a nice walk.”