Gender equality parade, 500-plus strong, gets its message across despite gawkers and protesters

Story by Bonnie Eslinger

Photos by Mia Duncans

Though delayed by rubbernecks and religious protesters, more than 500 topless women and men paraded along the Venice boardwalk on Sunday

Though delayed by rubbernecks and religious protesters, more than 500 topless women and men paraded along the Venice boardwalk on Sunday

The crowd at Sunday’s Venice Beach Go Topless Pride Parade was seemingly hell-bent on not letting the celebration of nipple rights move forward.

It wasn’t the half-dozen protesters holding signs with messages such as “Ask Me Why You Deserve Hell” and “Repent or Perish,” one literally thumping a six-foot tall model of a bible as he yelled “What’s Next, America?”

It was the supporters.

Hundreds of them, nearly all men, swarmed around the assembled contingent of topless-freedom celebrants ready to march down the beach’s famed boardwalk in a bid for gender equality. Armed with their cell phones and cameras, the men gawked and took pictures of the women, who bared breasts covered only with small patches placed on their areolae to prevent arrest for indecent exposure.

The women, of all body types but many who appeared to be models or entertainers, took it in stride, posing for pictures and selfies with their admirers.

“There’s a lot of lookie-loos for sure; there’s a lot of pervs, you know, but it’s also going to a greater cause,” said Sarah Jane Woodall, 38, who travelled from Vegas for the event. Wearing thigh-high red vinyl boots, a blue bikini bottom with white stars and a blue hat embroidered with her stage name, “Wonder Hussy,” Woodall’s liberated breasts were adorned with skin-colored pasties with the words “Free” and “Me” covering her nipples.

“That’s an argument a lot of men use why toplessness should not be allowed, that it would be distracting to men,” Woodall said. “I’m sure a hundred years ago an ankle was distracting to men, and women show their ankles all the time now. Your distraction is not my problem.”

An annual event in free-and-easy Venice, this year’s Go Topless Pride Parade was infused with additional political spirit on the heels of an April resolution by the Venice Neighborhood Council to support women being afforded the same rights as men to sunbathe topless at the beach.

Back before the Reagan ‘80s, activists say, nude sunbathing was allowed in Venice, and the community sees itself as a cultural counterpart to Europe, where a topless woman at a beach is commonplace. But Venice’s new resolve to bring back top-optional tanning for women, which would require L.A. City Council to repeal the ban, lost momentum after that April vote.

Lara Terstenjak, a lead organizer of the Go Topless Pride Parade, said one of the event’s aims was to show community support for changing the law.

“I hope this action this year will give them a little push and next year we can be fully topless,” said Terstenjak, who wore plastic nipple-shaped pasties on her breasts as well as other parts of her body. “This is just where we decided to start because it’s such an international place. Once we get the law here, we’ll be moving someplace else in L.A.”

For some, the belief that women should have the right to bare their breasts extended beyond beaches.

Anya Marshall, 31, of Temple City stood at the front of the parade lineup, wearing a cotton skirt and a floppy hat, openly breast-feeding her 21 month-old daughter.

“I have been shamed publicly for having my breasts out and I’ve consoled many women who have been shamed while breastfeeding and it’s sad,” Marshall said. “Honestly, it’s horrifying how women are treated for whipping their nipples out and doing the most natural thing possible.”

Sharilynn Grace Krikl, 17, a college student from Fullerton, was a first-time participant in the top-freedom event. She stood holding a sign with the message, “Nipple Gender Equality.” Although she’s participated in gay pride and peace events, Krikl said she’d never before bared her breasts for a cause.

“At first, I had a lot of anxiety about it, to be open like that,” Krikl said. “But I hope that this will be a part of change.”

West Los Angeles resident Alma Bella, 62, came to march in the parade with Mark Liphardt, 61, of Santa Monica.

“He seemed to like the idea; I liked the idea,” said Bella, a petite woman wearing a pink flowered skirt and flowers on her straw hat. “He can show his breasts in public, why can’t I?”

The growing number of spectators crowding around the topless women made it difficult to get the event
moving, but two male sentries eventually jumped in front of the participants and called out for the crush to back up so the parade could begin. The group that marched the one-mile route down the boardwalk, from Navy Street to Windward Avenue, numbered 500-plus and was equally split between women and their male allies.

A woman on stilts wearing a skin-colored bikini top and a white tutu led the group. A boom box blared the George Michael anthem “Freedom.”

Venice resident Ryan Marzolph, 28, wore a bikini top as he walked with the group.

“It’s just sort of a solidarity thing,” Marzolph said. “It would be a little disrespectful to just be topless and flaunting my male privilege.”