Bare-chest activist plans to show up on Md. beaches

OCEAN CITY, Md. — This coming summer, Chelsea Covington plans to hit the beach topless.

She's is not an exhibitionist or a nudist. Instead, she believes in normalizing the female body and has traveled throughout the mid-Atlantic, blogging about her interactions with people along the way.

She has taken photos at the Washington Monument, biked along trails in Philadelphia and visited beaches in New Hampshire, Assateague Island and Ocean City.

The 27-year-old from Maryland’s Eastern Shore advocates for "topfreedom," the belief that women have the same rights as men to not be obligated by laws cover their chests.

Covington believes that this type of gender shaming can be associated with "lifelong health concerns." She uses the term "bare chested," because she said topless is a gendered term that wouldn't be used to describe a man.

"My mission is to normalize female (bare chests) akin to how male (bare chests) are basically completely unnoteworthy," Covington wrote in an interview through a series of emails.

But not everyone in a beach town that caters to families is ready for Covington’s social statement.

"We really don't need that here," said Robert Banach, who runs the Ocean City Cool Facebook page. It has 12,000 followers. "I'm not a religious fanatic. … It's just not a thing that I should expect to see on the boardwalk."

In Maryland, it is legal for both men and women to be topless, as noted in Article 46 of the Maryland Constitution, which states the law cannot give preferential treatment on the basis of sex or gender.

Lindsay Richard, public information officer for the Ocean City Police Department, said while the practice may be legal, often other factors, such as outcry from the public, could lead police to intervene.

"If we got calls coming in complaining about someone walking around without a shirt, we would probably have an officer ask kindly if they could cover up," Richard said. "Luckily, it's not a thing we deal with a lot. But if a woman refused to cover up, I can honestly say I don't know how we would handle it."

The people she meets in her travels are mostly positive, Covington wrote. That's why in August, she sent a request to the Ocean City Police Department about the going topless.

Her inquiry was forwarded to the Office of the Attorney General, where an ultimate opinion on the town's action could take nine months, just in time for warm weather.

"I want to make it clear that this isn't about me, or Ocean City specifically, but the State of Maryland," Covington said.

Jessica Waters, communication manager for Ocean City, said that while she understands Covington's cause, the town stands precariously between defending her rights and protecting the visitors of the family resort.

"The town understands Ms. Covington's desire to be treated fairly under the equal protection law," Waters said. "But at the same time, we hope to be able to protect the rights of the thousands of families that visit our beach every year."

Only three states outright forbid women from being topless in public: Indiana, Tennessee and Utah.

In Delaware, the law on indecent exposure says that the exposure of breasts is a misdemeanor if the intent is to cause "affront" or "alarm."

On Sept. 24, Jennie Lee Martin was arrested in Rehoboth Beach, Del., for indecent exposure. The 37-year-old from Chevy Chase, Md., was walking topless near the boardwalk on Wilmington Avenue when city police responded. She was also charged with resisting arrest, possession of marijuana and disorderly conduct.

"We follow state law,” said Lt. Jaime Riddle of the Rehoboth Beach Police Department. “There's occasionally some ordinances that are strictly local, but for this case, she was in clear violation of state law."

Riddle said the qualification of being an "affront" stemmed from her being around children during the incident.

Despite his objections, Banach, who runs the Ocean City Facebook group, said he condones a woman's right to breastfeed on the beach, as well as opening a designated nude-friendly segment of the Ocean City beach.

"If there were a place set up where these people were allowed and welcomed to exercise their Constitutional rights, or whatever they may be, I'd be fine with that," Banach said.

The Rev. Gregory Knepp of St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Ocean City said his church doesn't condemn Covington's actions. He hopes that people obey the law.

"The church's viewpoint would most likely be that this is the natural state of people," Knepp said. "But if the law says a woman has to do this (cover up), for safety or health of the community, we would want people to respect that."

Covington began her journey as a topfreedom advocate in 2014, visiting Ocean City shirtless. It was the same year Lina Esco's "Free the Nipple," an independent film that spurred topless protests nationwide, was released.

Covington and the Free the Nipple protests play into a colorful, and lengthy, history in the topfree movement.

The movement's roots began with the Rochester 7, a group of women from Rochester, N.Y., that were led by Ramona Santorelli and arrested after staging a topless sit-in in 1986. They were later acquitted.

The dialogue on a women's right to go bare-chested took off from there, from a topless doughnut shop in Fort Collins, Colo., to bare-chested book clubs in Brooklyn.

"I am one of a long, long line of women who have sacrificed a lot more than I have to make this issue move over decades," Covington said.

Covington's cause, she said, also includes the act of breast-feeding. While the latter act is completely legal in public, it hasn't stopped instances of women being removed from areas for breastfeeding.

In January 2015, security officers removed Alanna Panas of Mechanicsburg, Pa., from the Casino at Ocean Downs lobby for breast-feeding her 7-week-old daughter.

"Entrenched negative prejudices about female breasts discourage breast-feeding, cement the idea that women do not get to decide when they are to be perceived as sexual or not and give rise to victim blaming, rape culture and bullying," Covington said.

Covington said she will remain vigilant to her cause.

"Sometimes these conversations take minutes, as it did in Philadelphia and York, Maine," Covington said. "Sometimes months, as it did in Pittsburgh. Sometimes years, as it has in Maryland, but I'm a redhead, I don't quit, I think authorities are beginning to realize that."

Follow Gino Fanelli on Twitter: @GinoFanelli


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