Equality tops Pittsburgh protesters' agenda

Women's rights group abandons plan to go topless

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The mantra of the gotopless.org group is "Free your breasts! Free your mind!"

And a handful of participants did just that Sunday to mark "Go Topless Day" in 50 cities, including Pittsburgh.

"This is really about the rights of women," said protester Sabrina Singh, 43, of Bellevue. "This is a human cause."

The group included about a half-dozen protestors and three semi-nude women who were covered with strategically placed duct tape. They marched from the Wyndham Grand Hotel to the fountain in Point State Park on Sunday afternoon, in the middle of the Black Arts Festival.

Though they intended to complete the march sans shirts, the women changed their minds after being told by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's office that the city had an ordinance specifically prohibiting "women from showing their nipples or aureolas," said protester Judith Sherwood, 35, of Hamilton, N.J.

Park rangers from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources approached the group and also put the kibosh on their planned march into the park.

Though the state itself doesn't prohibit exposure of male or female breasts -- it does prohibit showing genitals -- the Pennsylvania Crime Code addresses the behavior expected in state parks.

Part of the code governing state-owned parks, such as Point State Park, prohibits most forms of nudity, saying that "failing to fully cover with opaque clothing one's genitals, pubic area, buttocks and female breast below the top of the nipple," is a summary offense without written permission from the DCNR.

"We want to be respectful," Ms. Sherwood said. "We aren't trying to shock people. What we're trying to do is raise awareness for equal topless rights for men and women."

The group was staging the events throughout the country to mark Women's Equality Day today, commemorating 93 years since women were given the right the vote.

"I wanted to get the concept of women's equality out there first," said a fully clothed Ms. Singh, who said that while she usually protests topless in New York City and Miami, she felt the first annual event in Pittsburgh should be toned down somewhat so as not to offend residents. "This is not about showing boobs; it's about equality."

Though the group drew much attention with signs that read "Free your breasts! It's your right!" they didn't seem to disturb those visiting the art festival or any of the dozens of people relaxing on a bright sunny day in the park.

Mike Roscoe, 46, of the Allentown neighborhood was among the men who snapped photos of the group during the march. "It's to each their own -- everyone is different."

Jason Silly, 29, of Baldwin, agreed.

"When [men] get hot, we want to take our shirt off. I don't see the big deal," he said.

A woman who came to the park with her husband and 5-month-old son not only didn't mind the partial nudity -- she joined the group before the event was over, stripping off her shirt in favor of duct tape pasties.

"I think women should be able to do this," said 30-year-old Jessica Wojtasiak of Ellwood City.

As the sun beat down on the protesters in the park, Sarah Hammang, 28, of Crafton also tossed off her shirt, saying the spray from the fountain's mist felt better with her shirt off. She kept her bra on.

"I think it's a good cause," she said. "Why not?"

Though he wasn't fazed by the events unfolding before him and his two grandchildren, Matt Shepherd, 58, of Sheraden said he wasn't sure how seeing the partially topless women would affect children.

"I think there should be equal rights," said Mr. Shepherd, who came to the festival with his grandchildren, Ayiyana, 5, and Jordan, 4. "Most men don't mind looking at breasts -- I know I don't. If there's no kids around it's OK, I guess."

Though the group was subject to a few catcalls from motorists, most of the direct feedback they received was positive.

The park was full of men without shirts on, including Alex Benyo of Plum and Alex McMillian of Monroeville. The 18-year-old friends felt compelled to join the march, saying they believed inequality was unfair to women.

"Equality should be throughout," Mr. Benyo said. "It shouldn't be confined to one gender."

Also jumping on board was blogger Melissa Stokoski, 23, of Hazelwood, who also felt inspired to join the group.

"It's something bigger [than breasts]," said Ms. Stokoski, who authors a women's rights blog at www.thepurpleninjablog.com. "It's the sexualization of breasts that's the problem."

The protest was organized by Upper St. Clair resident Brian J. Paradis, 41, who said he hoped for a better turnout next year. This year, he said, many women who wanted to participate were afraid to do so because they could be arrested. Now that no one has been, he hopes participants will feel safer.

"I believe by next year we'll have a lot more people with us," said Mr. Paradis, who wants the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to be ratified to include the freedom for all genders to be topless.

Though protesters said some people told them the protest was silly, equal rights have to start somewhere, Ms. Sherwood said.

"It's definitely more than that," she said of toplessness. "This could definitely segue into other ways where women feel inferior, like equal pay and jobs. And, hopefully, more women will feel freer to breast-feed in public."

neigh_city - breaking

Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1867.


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