Thursday, April 29, 2010

Anatomy of a Topfree Activist - Andrea Simoneau

PHOTO BY AMBER WATERMAN, SUN JOURNAL/AP
When Andrea Simoneau was seven years old, she took her shirt off because she was hot. Her father came outside and told her she could not do that in public. When she asked why, he said, "I think its really stupid, but the rest of the world thinks that girls should not go shirtless."

That memory stuck with Andrea, and when she marched topfree with Ty MacDowell and others in Portland, Maine, a few weeks ago, she was inspired to take action.

At 1 PM on Friday, April 30, Andrea Simoneau and a crowd of both men and women will exercise their topfree rights in Farmington, Maine. The march will begin at Meetinghouse Park on Main Street and will go about a half mile to Abbott Park. Andrea says that 60 people have signed up on her Facebook page, but due to all the publicity it's impossible to predict the number of people who will participate.

"If we're protesting anything, its that societal double standard of women's chests being considered sexual, no matter what context they are presented in, and men's chests are only sexual in certain context", said Andrea.

The 22 year-old University of Maine Farmington senior, who has been on the Dean's list for academic excellence, has been walking topfree through the town handing out flyers for the event, with the word "Freedom" written across her chest. As for public reaction either pro or con to her free expression, Andrea says that it's "pretty evenly split, and there have definitely been uncomfortable confrontations. You just have to keep on going, and ignore them and do not engage with them or escalate the situation in any way, as that hurts the cause far more than helps it." In a radio interview today, Andrea says that most of the negative reaction comes from people who oppose her on moral grounds, and, of course, for the sake of the children.

"I believe no religious group should have any sway in lawmaking, as it promotes special interests for certain groups. Morality is subjective. Therefore, I feel that morality is not a grounds to stand on to make policy, and should never be."

Ms. Simoneau believes there is "no time like the present" to promote women's topfreedom, and credits Dr. Paul Rapoport and TERA for "great encouragement and assistance". She hopes that other organizations interested in equal rights for women will also pick up on the movement.

The April 3 topfree march in Portland, while successful in generating lots of publicity, descended into somewhat of a circus, with hoards of men tripping over each other to take photographs, and some of the female participants obliging with some cheesecake posing. "There's nothing that can be done to stop men from taking pictures or making inappropriate comments. However if any inappropriate touching occurs or assault, the participant must report it to the police. There are going to be a lot of counterprotesters present also, I am told, and the police have expressed that they will be present to hold order."

As for anyone acting in a sexual manner, Andrea makes it clear that she wants none of that. "Anyone I catch doing that I will personally ask to leave, with great admonishments about them undermining our cause. Those women's actions disgusted me about the Portland march far more than the men taking pictures and leering."

Although there are no laws in Maine specifically prohibiting the exposure of female breasts in public, Andrea admits her actions could result in a backlash, and people are already calling for laws prohibiting topfreedom. "The town of Farmington has decided not to take an official position on the issue, and has decided to defer it to the State legislature to be ruled on, possibly even put to state referendum. Since support seems to be so evenly split for it, I feel confident that even when that happens, we stand a good chance for it to be officially legalized, as I believe the law stands now that only genital exposure is "indecent" exposure. I will do my part to speak out to the legislature as well, as I hope women's equal rights organizations in Maine or even national ones will do the same."

Perhaps the most high-profile opposition to Ms. Simoneau's protest comes from conservative activist Michael Heath of the American Family Association of Maine, who is seeking records from UMF regarding a recent campus event for EqualityMaine.
Heath said he draws a connection between the upcoming march in Farmington and his records request because "the promotion and presentation of public nudity is a staple of the homosexual rights movement." Heath's recently founded organization is a chapter of the Mississippi-based American Family Association.

"We see an organic connection between the two," Heath said. "Many still confuse sexual license, and indifference to the gospel of Jesus Christ, with true freedom and liberty."
Calling the march "more typical of San Francisco than Maine", Heath joins other religious groups who plan to counter-protest, including women from local churches holding a silent prayer vigil, and Rev. Bob Emrich who recently helped to overturn Maine's gay marriage law.
But Simoneau says all of the criticisms of the march are off-base. For instance, the march will be held while children are in school and will follow a route that is away from schools, Simoneau said.

And in a way, Simoneau said, "we are doing this for children -- to create a more equal world for them by presenting a female body that is not a sexual contest."

"This is for a noble cause of gender equality," she said. "Giving up has not crossed my mind."

Adelle Shea, Canadian topfree activist and naturist, has come to Andrea's defense.
It is curious that it is not enough in our society that something not be illegal but instead must be made specifically legal in order to be enjoyed freely? In North America a woman going topfree risks being charged with anything from ‘causing a disturbance’ to a sex crime. Breastfeeding women faced, and in some cases still face, the same discrimination and many States and Provinces had to enact laws to make breastfeeding a child in public specifically legal. In some cases even this was found to be insufficient and laws had to be enacted to make harassment of a nursing mother (by passers-by, business owners, police) illegal. In this case the attending constables were a great help in protecting Ms Simoneau’s legal right and informing the public that she was doing nothing illegal. In my opinion, it isn’t topfreedom that is immoral but the systemic discrimination of women that surrounds it.
Andrea understands the wide societal ramifications of women's topfreedom in America. She says, "it saddens me greatly that nursing mothers are particularly discriminated against in this matter. I encourage nursing mothers particularly, as well as breast cancer survivors and those who have been victims of sexual assault to come out and experience the empowerment and freedom of going topless in town."

Eventually the topfreedom movement will need a leader, or an organization, which can mobilize women nationwide. Is Andrea up to the challenge? "I'm not a leader by nature, but if that role falls to me, I will do my best to fill it. I cannot do it alone, not by a long shot. I'm having a terrible time trying to handle this myself, though I have had help in advertising, definitely, from UMF students and friends."

If you would like to help Andrea, or participate in her march this Friday, you can contact her on her Facebook page here.

1 comment:

Paul said...

A good and lively interview.

While taking the march into areas where there aren't children is fine, the "What about the children" question has several answers that may be useful.

Meanwhile, if the chief objector is Fake Us on the Family, Andrea and others shouldn't have much trouble. Its bigotry is very clear.