D.C. women have been able to go topless since 1986, but this is the first time I’ve encountered breasts on a sidewalk.
It’s 82 degrees and sunny on Sunday, perfect weather for a protest. Dozens of anti-Assad folks wave flags and chant "Free Syria" in front of the White House. But that’s not why I’m standing in Lafayette Square.
I’m here to see the 30 to 50 shirtless demonstrators demanding topless equality for women as part of National Go Topless Day. There’s no sign of them.
"Oh that tour de force—that’s over there, lots of support," a Capitol policeman said.
Two bare-chested women stand in the shade of a bronzed Andrew Jackson; a white-haired woman sits topless in a wheelchair. Four men join them holding a "Topless Rights for All" banner.
The Hero of New Orleans surely fought for the right of well-endowed grocer/nude model Laura Sissom to go in the buff from the waist up. She barks "FREE YOUR BREASTS" to tepid replies of "free your mind," while the heavy-breathing, smirking crowd tries to get the camera lighting right in the sun. None of the middle-aged gawkers give me their names for unstated, obvious reasons.
Two Iranian-American women approach out of curiosity.
"[Breasts] are something private, something that’s yours to be valued; you can’t just show off your body, then your value goes down," says Seema Tabatabaei, a 48 year-old mother of three girls. "There’s other ways to pursue equality."
The demonstration moves from the Jackson statue to the White House gate, leaving behind Kendra, an education grad student and the prettiest topless protester. She spends 10 minutes taking photographs next to young men.
"Please, please, please don’t do anything weird with these," Kendra says, as the wind tests the adhesive strength of her pasties. She turns to her companion and concedes that the photos will be used for weird things. It is worth it, she tells me, as long as the demonstration improves female body image.
Then she agrees to take a photo holding a Go Topless poster, as long as she doesn’t have to hoist it above her head.
"I haven’t shaved my armpits in a while," she says.
The protesters are marching in circles in front of the White House when a woman gestures to the anti-Assad crowd and shouts, "These people are facing extermination and this is what you’re doing?"
Marcia Johnson, a retired New York Department of Labor employee, says she doesn’t think Syrians—or Andrew Jackson, for that matter—shed their blood for the right to remain topless.
"When I see people fighting for their lives, showing your breasts just seems so shallow and insignificant," she tells me.
The dress-down inspires the group to embark on a "meditation zen walk" away from the long-suffering Syrians and toward the Capitol building.
They proceed down Pennsylvania Avenue at a slow pace to accommodate wheel-chair bound nudist Ann and her husband Doug, giving me time to ask random female passersby why they’re wearing shirts.
"Because I’m not in the south of France," says one Florida native.
"Because I feel more comfortable in a shirt," says Sandra Montoya, 34. "My breasts are for the privacy of my own bedroom, plus you have to leave something to be desired."
"Excuse me?" says one young woman. I explain the legal history of D.C. toplessness to her.
"What?" she says.
The protesters have different explanations.
"They’ve been repressed for so long," says Michael, who doesn’t disclose his last name for work reasons.
"They think it’s illegal," says former French embassy employee Jana.
"Patriarchy," says megaphone-waving Laura Sissom, who wears a dog collar.
The march ends at the Ulysses S. Grant memorial in front of the U.S. Capitol. The protest is at its peak: six women, six men, and 18 onlookers (all male, all clothed).
A man of short stature and gravelly voice approaches the two non-geriatric protesters, looks the ladies up and down, and asks for a photo.
"Look how happy he is," one organizer says.
"Yes, look how happy I am," he says, wrapping his arms around his temporary harem. He provides zero insight into how to operate his SLR camera as another gawker fumbles with the buttons.
After some effort, the befuddled cameraman snaps a photo, but the gravelly voiced man asks for more pictures, "Just in case."
Go Topless organizers call these men "allies."
Missing from the protest, though, was topless pioneer Ramona Santorelli, who secured a woman’s right to public nudity before New York’s highest court in 1992 after being arrested twice during two breast-beating protests in the 1980s.
I call her up.
Santorelli speaks in a direct, innocent, and, at times, unfortunate manner. She sums up her legacy: "I’ve had many activists latch onto me; people arrested in New York cite me and get off."
The movement in her eyes is not just about equal rights; it’s about defeating smut, which is why she prefers the term "topfree" to "topless, which has pornographic connotations."
"Because [breasts are] covered up and sexualized, they’re looked at from a pornographic perspective," she says.
The 55-year-old Santorelli couldn’t attend Sunday’s nationwide protests because she had a baptism in Brooklyn to attend. And yet, whether they realize it or not, the women lambasting American puritanism in the nation’s capital are also partaking in an elaborate religious rally.
Go Topless was founded by Rael (nee Claude Vorilhon), son of Yahweh, half-brother of Jesus and Mohammed, the incarnation of Buddha, prophet for the extra terrestrial creators of the earth, and founder of the International Rael Movement, a fringe "religion" that claims 50,000 adherents worldwide.
Rael created National Go Topless day six years ago. It has been far more popular than his other political activities. Sunday’s 30-city rally took place about one month after the Raelians held the Fourth Annual Swastika Rehabilitation Day.
Go Topless spokeswoman Nadine Gary repeats the equality blah of the protesters, adding that the group’s ultimate goal is full public nudity for both sexes. It’s also about the triumph of femininity over masculinity and—to my surprise—feminism.
"Our society has been very masculine; even the women tend to be masculine, you know to be competitive, get that job, get ahead, make more money. All of this is ruining the planet," she says. "How many women are leading countries right now?"
Angela Merkel? Hillary Clinton?
"These women are acting like men to stay in politics, to show they have the strength to live like a man. These role models, this is not what the world needs," she says.
Gary is a member of Rael’s Angels, a select group of Raelians who are "personally trained by Rael to please" our (male) alien overlords when they return to earth sometime before 2035.
"They’re taught to be charming hostesses, companions, though the sexual part is always there," Raelian expert Susan Palmer tells me. "They’re supposed to be lovers, geishas."
The revelation that a fringe group sponsored the rally receives mixed reviews from attendees.
"That doesn’t sound very egalitarian to me," says Doug, the elderly nudist.
"I love concubines and UFOs," says Kendra.
When I ask topfree pioneer Santorelli about the sponsors she’s scandalized. There’s a good 30 seconds of silence on the phone and then…
"Outrageous," she said. "Outrageous, outrageous."
She soon excuses herself. Her dogs, Charlotte and Happy, need a walk. She needs to take her shirt off and think about the movement she inspired. And there isn’t a judge in New York who can tell her otherwise.