Dozens go topless, braless in Charleston to normalize female bodies

Topless protesters made their way down Summers Street in Charleston on Saturday evening to show that nipples and breasts are not sexual objects.

A week ago, Valenia Morrison was laying on her back, sunbathing as her boyfriend fished in the middle of a lake in Logan County.

After about an hour, an officer with the Department of Natural Resources pulled up to the couple, pulled out a slip book, and wrote Morrison a ticket for indecent exposure because she was topless.

“It was the middle of nowhere, there was no one around,” she said. “The officer said someone reported me, but there’s no cell service out there. What could they have done — sent smoke signals?”

At Davis Park on Saturday evening, right before the start of the Free the Nip Top Freedom Rally at 6:30 p.m., Morrison pulled the ticket out of her purse, with an orange sticky-note attached to it reading “$171!!”

“That’s how much it cost me to go topless tanning,” Morrison said, looking at her boyfriend Denny Hughart, who was sitting beside her. “The officer told me it’d be OK for a man to do it, but not me.”

A few days after the incident, Morrison and Hughart heard about the rally, and they both came out on Saturday to show support and participate as dozens of women, men and children walked silently from Davis Park on Summers Street to Kanawha Boulevard. Some went topless, others braless or fully clothed.

“I think it’s awesome — It’s for women’s rights,” Hughart said. “We accept everything else, why not this?”

The point of the march was to destigmatize the female body, letting people know nipples and breasts are not sexual objects.

As the marchers grouped at the entrance of Davis Park, those who chose to do so took off their shirts, and prepared to walk. Spectators — groups of men and women alike — stood a few yards away, using their phones to film the women undressing, and lining up against the buildings on Summers to film as they walked by.

As they began their walk, a woman standing against a parking meter cupped her hands around her mouth and yelled “Pathetic!” several times to the marchers.

She declined a request for comment.

Jade Magoun, 22, brought her mother, Jeannie, and her nearly-1-year-old son, Jet, with her to the rally, holding signs saying “Haters Gonna Hate, Mama’s Gonna Lactate,” and “Peace, Love, Mama’s Milk #MindYourOwnTitties.”

“I’m here representing for the breastfeeding mommas,” Jade Magoun said. “Things like this, I think, are one of the only ways we’re going to be able to normalize this. Babies get hungry, we gotta feed them.”

She recalled around Christmas last year, as she was shopping at the Charleston Town Center mall, she couldn’t find a place to comfortably feed her then-6-month-old son.

“There were groups of men here, groups of boys there, and they kept staring,” Magoun, a St. Albans native, said. “There was no place to go.”

The mall does have family restrooms with lounge areas for nursings mothers.

The Macy’s in the mall wouldn’t let her use a couch that sits outside of the bathroom, and other stores refused her request for a space as well, until she went to Motherhood, a maternity store, where the manager let her go to the back to feed her son.

“This isn’t something we should be ashamed of,” Magoun, who is also currently a student at West Virginia State University, said. “Being a mom is already so hard — we make a lot of sacrifices and put up with a lot. Feeding our children in public shouldn’t be something we have to worry about.”

Legal observers from the West Virginia ACLU were also at the rally, ensuring no participants had their rights violated, said Jeff Martin, who has served on the state ACLU’s board of directors for a few years.

On a Facebook page for the rally, organizers warned participants that while state statutes don’t necessarily ban toplessness in public, the language is vague. The marchers were also warned about city noise ordinances if they chose to march with chants and megaphones, so participants opted to march in silence, even as cars honked and people yelled from the streets.

Originally, the rally was scheduled earlier than its 6:30 start time, but after requests from Charleston Mayor Danny Jones to move the “naked spectacle” — or cancel it completely — because of FestivALL, organizers agreed to move the time back an hour and a half.

“I really don’t have many thoughts on that,” said participant Amanda Franklin, 27, of South Charleston. “He’s free to think whatever he wants. I can respect everyone’s freedom — this is my freedom, though, and I’m embracing it.”

Reach Caity Coyne at caitlin.coyne@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5100 or follow @caitycoyne on Twitter.