In a nail-biting vote, the Gainesville City Commission rejected a proposal that would allow female toplessness in public.
The commission voted 3-3 against the proposal at a Feb. 11 meeting, halting the “Free the Nipple'' movement in Gainesville but passing a plan to begin drafting language changes to de-gender city codes.
Mayor Lauren Poe and Commissioners Adrian Hayes-Santos and Reina Saco voted in favor of both proposals. Commissioners Gigi Simmons, Gail Johnson and Harvey Ward voted against the topless proposal for varying reasons including wanting to prioritize other issues in the community such as racial justice and safety concerns about public nudity.
Commissioner David Arreola, who would have broken the tie, was absent from the meeting.
Johnson said she voted for making the city’s codes, laws and ordinances gender-neutral by replacing words like “him” and “her” with gender-neutral pronouns like “they” and “them,” but she didn’t agree with allowing those with breasts to be topless in public.
Johnson wrote in a Facebook post she was livid and insulted, and the policy “reeks of patriarchy and privilege.” As a woman and mother of an 11-year-old daughter, the discussion about female anatomy felt dehumanizing and disrespectful, she wrote.
During the meeting, Johnson said she felt offended as a Black woman.
“I can say with complete confidence that after all these conversations that I've had this week, I'm positive that public nudity is not in the top 20 challenges that women are facing and something that deserves our attention right now,” Johnson said.
The initial proposal, introduced by Hayes-Santos Jan. 28, included an initiative to replace gendered pronouns like “fireman” and “policewoman,” with neutral ones, such as “firefighter” and “police officer,” in city policy and legislation. The proposal was intended to stop discrimination on the basis of gender in written laws and codes. It also included a proposal to allow all toplessness in the city.
Following a heated public comment session, the commission unanimously decided to break up the proposal for the city Equity and Inclusion Committee and city attorney’s office to begin analyzing pronoun changes but not those relating to public nudity laws, as the commission will review them later.
In the U.S., only three states have explicit laws against showing female breasts in public, including Utah, Tennessee and Indiana. Fourteen states have ambiguous laws on female public nudity, such as Florida, which has normalized nudist beaches in certain areas but retains policies outlawing female toplessness in others.
Gainesville’s current public nudity standard only applies to those with female anatomy, where it is illegal to expose their breasts.
Commissioner Saco, who voted to allow toplessness, said it’s important everyone in the community not only feels valued and included but also protected.
“It's just more open, more empathetic and reflects the society we live in,” Saco said. “We try to be as open and inclusive of everyone who could live here.”
Gainesville art curator and event director Rüts Duplantis said they think the city laws should reflect the whole spectrum of people who exist.
“It helps harbor the parameters of safe space within our city,” Duplantis, who is gender-fluid, said. “I think that is a safety that applies to me. It's so easy to change words on paper and for it to mean that much more to the people that it pertains to.”
They said this proposal would help the city view everyone as equal in the eyes of the law.
“When you're able to feel more true and solidified in your identity, you're more solidified in who you are overall,” they said. “That flows into progress and productivity and community and communication and every aspect of your life I feel.”
Hannah Hill, a 24-year-old owner of Flow Space yoga studio in Gainesville, said she first introduced the idea of gender-fluid terms to the Gainesville city commission about a year ago.
Hill said society is no longer a two-gendered system, and individuals who identify as transgender, non-binary or another gender find themselves no longer fitting into the laws and codes.
An estimated 0.6% of adults, or about 1.4 million, identify as transgender in the U.S., according to a 2016 study at the UCLA Williams Institute of Law. In the state of Florida, 0.66% of the population identifies as transgender. It is important to note the study relied on self-reported data, so it may not reflect everyone who identifies as transgender.
“They find themselves being questioned of, what is this law mean to me? Where do I fit in the gray area of this?” Hill said.
The root of the issues is the sexualization of the female body, Hill said. Breastfeeding mothers, who often must hide in bathrooms or private places to feed their children, will be affected by the legalization of toplessness.
It is legal in Florida to breastfeed in public, but outright topless nudity is not legal in municipalities, according to the Gainesville policy program’s preliminary research and analysis.
“Why is it that the male nipple can be seen in public and the female nipple cannot?” she said. “We're talking about women who are doing the job of what a woman is naturally supposed to do, and somehow in our culture, we have sexualized it so horribly.”
Trysh Travis, a 56-year-old UF associate professor at the Center for Gender, Sexualities and Women’s Studies, said she believes the proposal is a gesture toward inclusivity.
But while she said she’d love to be able to go topless in the summer, it’s not at the top of her priorities.
“I would prefer that my elected officials focus on other more consequential aspects of gender inequality,” she said. “For example, the income inequality, that I mentioned before, ongoing problems of violence against women and girls, lack of access to affordable housing, lack of access to good education.”
Travis said the taboo of naked breasts is the result of the general policing of women and people with breasts’ sexuality. She mentioned Berkley, California’s annual naked parade, which emphasizes the expression of bodily pleasure.
“Are they for babies to get nutrition? Or, are they for men to get visual pleasure?” she asked. “We have a strange double understanding of what women's breasts are in this country.”
Contact Michelle Holder at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @michellecholder.
Michelle Holder is a second-year journalism student at UF minoring in entrepreneurship and a Metro reporter at The Alligator. She is from Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. In her free time she enjoys going to coffee shops and reading.