They’re topless, get over it

by David Forbes August 24, 2014

The annual topless “rally” is an overhyped farce. But the reaction from government and business leaders is far, far worse.

Above: One of the topless rally attendees — and onlookers — at the 2011 event. Photo by Max Cooper.

It’s that time again. Every year (for the past three), the GoTopless rally hits downtown. It’s far too small to be a rally by any reasonable standard. A few people, mostly from out of town, come in without shirts and a crowd of spectators shows up. After a few hours, they go home. Most Ashevillians just go about their usual day before, during and after the rally. By itself it’s just not a big deal.

Toplessness — male or female — isn’t banned here, so the actual agenda of the rally’s always been a bit murky. Jurisdictions that do have such bans have seen lawsuits (because rules that ban behaviors for women but not men rightly have a hard time passing constitutional muster) or such prohibitions joining countless other old ones on the books that simply aren’t enforced.

I count myself lucky because I’ve never had to cover this mess as a journalist. There are a thousand more pressing issues facing our town. For the first and last time, I’m devoting digital ink to it because what’s notable here isn’t the rally but the reaction, especially from government.

For the last few years, the members of Asheville City Council have put aside their usual differences to issue a unanimous statement of condemnation. This year’s open letter, after telling the public to ignore the event, warns that “Our legal department continues to investigate and analyze all of the City’s potential options to regulate this conduct, and as a Council, we continue to support legislation in Raleigh that will clarify the law and enable Asheville and other communities in North Carolina to respond more effectively.”

This sort of all-hands-on-deck statement is usually reserved for things like opposing state legislation trying to seize the water system, the passing of local notables or public emergencies. Earlier this year, the Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Commission also worked themselves into a fine tizzy over the issue.

Somehow, three decades of shirtless male drunks thronging Bele Chere didn’t constitute a similar civic crisis. This over-hyped blip, however, apparently needs lawyers and legislation.

That push has made for some strange bedfellows, such as last year when state Rep. Tim Moffitt — who usually makes local news fighting with Council — proposed a ban on female nipples in public all across the state in response to local government’s call for legislation. Shockingly, the “nipple ban” attempting to carefully specify which parts of the bosom were and weren’t ok for public viewing ended up roundly mocked across North Carolina.

Moffitt and Council later fell out, with him accusing them of leaving him high and dry when the legislation failed to gain traction and some Council members asserting they hadn’t really wanted the specific kind of bill he was proposing. The incident is a reminder that politics can make the strangest bedfellows out of the most absurd things.

The obvious course of action for government, local and otherwise, is to do nothing. No statement, no calls for regulation and certainly no effort from lawyers and staff, whose time is better spent doing anything else. If the members of the community Council’s statement alludes to are outraged enough, they’re free to hold their own counter-protest, because that’s how the public square works. Everyone, from the stupid to the profound, can go say their piece.

Beyond the fact that what people wear (or don’t) is a dumb, regressive thing for government to spend its time regulating, there’s no way to write a law on this that doesn’t turn into a misogynistic trainwreck.

The endgame in this whole bit of theater has never been clear to me. If the city did pass a regulation or state law did change, what would they do? Arrest the topless rally? I’m sure that would end the publicity and in no way completely backfire.

More than any actual outrage over nudity, what’s fueling this chorus of finger-wagging is something more venal: the fear that the event will hurt tourism. Under this view tourists are fragile, delicate creatures that will flee the city the very moment they see a naked breast or, perhaps, when a homeless person asks them for change.

That mentality is actually a cause for concern. City leaders that feel the need to clamp down on anything in public space that might offend any potential visitor will eventually do far worse than engage in this annual clucking match.

One of the facts of a city — any city — is that people will occasionally see things they don’t like or agree with. Somehow, the world doesn’t end.

And next year, our elected leaders should relax; this is an issue that requires them to do absolutely nothing. Asheville will, miraculously, survive.

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