Asheville’s Topless Protest

By Pete Zamplas

Nearly a dozen women in Downtown Asheville Sunday were busting loose, baring breasts with a call for other cities to likewise obey the state’s legalization of female toplessness in public.

The turnout of about 300 sagged from last year, when Go Topless first implanted itself into Asheville and packed an estimated 2,000 into Pack Square. The rally was again there and top-heavy with men, eagerly keeping abreast of visual developments. Many snapped photos, and flashed grins.

Many of the topless women told The Tribune they were in their 20s, and from out of town including Alabama and Tennessee. Their leaders appeared middle-aged. Most acted relaxed, despite dozens of men gawking around them. The two-hour event had no disturbances.

After taking her turn as focal point up on Pack Square’s raised green, “Michelle,” 29, from Burke County told The Tribune “I felt famous for a few minutes.” She said she danced for a year at a topless club in Hickory, but got tired of being treated as a “piece of meat.” She got plenty of testosterone attention at the rally as well, but said onlookers there acted far more cordial. Most of the topless women agreed to pose with men, for photos.

“Men will look,” said Jay Bollinger, 23, of Morganton. “It’s our nature.” But though it is legal, he understands most women are reluctant to expose themselves as “sex objects.” He realizes risk of getting viewed as too “loose,” and thus get sexually harassed.

Thus though toplessness it is legal, cultural restraints severely limit it. Asheville Police Patrol Capt. Tim Splain Capt. Splain estimated there are merely about five instances per year of women legally exposing their breasts in Asheville.

“Breasts are beautiful,” Michelle told The Tribune. “A woman should not feel ashamed to show them — no matter the size.” Donna Newman, among organizers, urged women in the crowd to “free your breasts, to free your mind.” None joined in. A Delaware lady onlooker said she lacked nerve to do so in an urban setting, but has felt comfortable topless relaxing at select beaches.

The fifth annual, worldwide Go Topless was mainly coast to coast in a few U.S. cities both that ban and allow toplessness. This National Go Topless Day was on Women’s Equality Day, which honors women getting the right to vote in 1920. Some saw a conflict of views, with toplessness a free expression and equal rights issue, yet also enhancing sexual objectification of women. A woman’s rights rally was in Pritchard Park, a few blocks from Go Topless which was centered at the shaded green north of Vance Monument.

A few blocks eastward, the yearly Goombay African cultural festival drew the heaviest crowd. City officials had urged the public to attend that and Equality Day, rather than Go Topless. An Asheville City Council public letter said Go Topless “embarrasses many of our citizens and visitors.” Mayor Terry Bellamy warned on WLOS-TV it was a “mockery” that would “cause havoc in our community.”

Topless foes are concerned about sexual exhibitionism and morality, especially potentially exposure to children of families happening to walk by. Go Topless opposition is led by Carl Mumpower, and former Buncombe County Republican Party Chairman Chad Nesbitt. Mumpower, former Asheville councilman and congressional candidate, set up mocking

Go Topless participants got back at him Sunday, taking turns holding a cardboard upper-body cutout of Mumpower. It shielded all but their breasts, which they plunged through a hole where his chest would be — making it seem he were topless and busty.

State Versus Local Code

An irony was Go Topless protesting in a city that abides by this state’s legality of female toplessness in public. Thus, women can already bare their breasts in Asheville, and supposedly across North Carolina among 13 states. N.C. is the only state in the Southeast, with Texas the other Southern state allowing such display. Most topless-permitting states are in the Northeast, but include Ohio and California.

Protestors could bare themselves here to get points across, calling for other states to allow toplessness, and for more cities to honor the law rather than pass local ordinances banning toplessness as part of other public nudity.

As Capt. Splain explained to The Tribune, Asheville Police like City Council are going by City Attorney Bob Oast’s legal advisement not to buck state law. State law supersedes local law, in such cases, he advised. The landmark ruling, by state Court of Appeals in 1970, was that “private parts” were genitalia (“external organs of sex or excretion”) but not buttocks nor female breasts.

Yet local bans have emerged or remained in place bucking state law, in most cities in supposedly-permissive states, according to It deems these bans as unconstitutional, and some judges agree. It cites’s list of 10 successful legal challenges of such local bans such as in Columbus, Ohio in 1998 and in ’92 in Rochester, N.Y.

Yet, in many cities there have not been legal challenges and thus local law has prevailed. Mayor Bellamy recently told WLOS-TV she hopes an ordinance can be worked out and stand any legal challenge. But some warn a challenge is far more likely in liberal Asheville than elsewhere in the Tar Heel State.

Raleigh’s ban on toplessness is over a half-century old. Its approach focuses on children. The ordinance states a woman cannot expose breasts “where any minor under the age of 18 is present or admitted, or not prohibited from being present.”

Desiree, 19, now living in Asheville, told The Tribune she was arrested “hundreds of times” and often fined for exposing breasts in Raleigh, when living there. She said anti-topless laws are “sexist,” while in Asheville she feels “free” in a more permissive and less “judgmental” atmosphere.

Lacy Bone, 24, came from Huntsville, Ala., as did organizer Jeff Johnson and a few others. She said she has exposed herself in public in Asheville all five times she has visited, apart from Go Topless. She said reactions of walkers-by varied. Some smiled, others yelled “ugly” at her friend as if judging a talent show. Still, overall “I felt comfortable. “It’s great that it’s legal here … I love showing my breasts.”

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