The Message of Denver GoTopless Day

A scene from Denver GoTopless Day 2018.
A scene from Denver GoTopless Day 2018. Noah Graham Photography courtesy of Denver GoTopless
In our Denver GoTopless Day 2019 preview, co-organizer Mia Jean talked about a conscious effort to recapture the original spirit of the event, which takes place on Sunday, August 25 (details below), as well as a return to its traditional location, Civic Center Park.

But for fellow organizer Matt Wilson, the philosophy that underpins the seventh-annual gathering is just as important as the message about equality that's sent every time it takes place.

In the following Q&A, Wilson discusses his introduction to Denver GoTopless Day five years ago; the reasons he took on the challenge of putting together the happening in 2015; how he responds to those surprised that a man is so involved in an occasion founded on female empowerment; his take on a court ruling that struck down a public-nudity ordinance in Fort Collins aimed squarely at women and more.

For Wilson, this is what's behind the fun and frivolity.

Westword: You took part in your first Denver GoTopless Day in 2014. Is it surprising to you that the event has become as popular as it has, or did you have an inkling early on that there was huge potential for growth?

Matt Wilson: The growth’s been amazing. My first year organizing, I had no idea what to expect but was convinced this is a worthy cause. Funds are always an issue, so social media was invaluable for getting the message out and spread. Every year’s attendance has been a surprise, and it’s incredibly gratifying to see our numbers grow.

What was it about the event that inspired you to get involved from an organizational standpoint?

When I attended my first event, I got to talking with the organizer. Because she’d be moving from the area soon and our worldviews meshed so well, she asked if I’d be willing to organize the following year. What inspired me to accept was how topless equality is such a focal point for double standards between men and women.

First, it’s simply not fair that men on a hot day can take of their shirts in public while women are too objectified to enjoy the same freedom. Women maintain self-control at the sight of a topless man; men are just as capable.

Second, we have to remind society that while nudity and sexuality can overlap, they aren’t the same thing. It’s understandable that if the only times we see women’s bodies are when they’re sexualized, then people will be more likely to interpret the sight as sexual. We need to increase non-sexual nudity in media, to be reminded what normal looks like.

Third, building on those concepts brings multiple benefits. Women feeling how good it is to get out of their shirts on a hot day, same as men. People not comparing themselves to models and Hollywood elites and hating themselves for not measuring up. Plus, if men are regulating their behavior to show self-discipline and respect for women practicing topless equality, it will translate into more respect throughout all of their relationships.

click to enlarge A participant in Denver GoTopless Day 2018 with a sign that underscores the event's message. - NOAH GRAHAM PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF DENVER GOTOPLESS
A participant in Denver GoTopless Day 2018 with a sign that underscores the event's message.
You've talked in the past about how some people are surprised that a male is as involved in the event as you are. Why does it make perfect sense to you — and over the years, have more men who feel the same way as you do gotten involved?

One big reason: Our society’s a patriarchy. Men have dominated upper management in all areas of business, including media and advertising, throughout our history. Women have been struggling for decades to win rights equal to men, yet we still have glaring inequalities. Women cannot succeed if all men are committed to maintaining the status quo. Women need our support, and men grow into better people by providing it.

The other big reason: I have daughters. I want them to grow up in a world better than I did.

If you have to sum up the message of GoTopless Day, how would you do so?

Topless equality is a crucial pivot point for social change, combating body image issues, objectification, toxic masculinity and rape culture. It prompts self-reflection and dialogue about the conditioning instilled by our #SexSells media.

Denver GoTopless promotes empowerment, freedom and respect.

Our social activism applies regardless of age, race, gender identity or political affiliation. Improving how genders relate to each other benefits all of us.

Do you see the event as political in some ways, and if so, how?

Any comment about contemporary policies is political. Getting these policies changed is political. Life is more about politics than people realize. There are ordinances and statutes on municipal books that perpetuate the objectification of women. The only way we can get our representatives to make changes is to change the views of who they represent, which is why we do what we do.

As Denver GoTopless Day has expanded, a controversy over a nudity ordinance in Fort Collins has worked its way through the judicial system — and earlier this year, the Fort Collins City Council decided not to appeal rulings on behalf of the plaintiffs to the U.S. Supreme Court, which essentially killed any laws that specifically discriminate against women in this part of the country. How do you feel about this victory, and do you think events like Denver GoTopless Day, and the way it's been received, laid the groundwork in any way for the courts to rule as they have?

I’m very pleased with the win in Fort Collins. The court ruled that ordinances that target a group based on gender — such as banning women specifically from going topless while allowing men to do so — is a violation of the equal-protections clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The city argued in court that women going topless could prompt public disorder, distract drivers and expose children to public nudity. The court rejected those claims, noting that children may already be exposed to topless women if they pass a mother breastfeeding in public — an act that is specifically legal under city code. The judges also argued that the ban "creates a gender classification on its face" and furthers gender stereotypes, including negative stereotypes depicting women’s breasts, but not men’s breasts, as sex objects.

Denver GoTopless events have proved that topless equality can be an empowering success. Cities where topless equality is legal continue to disprove doomsday predictions. Organizations such as Free the Nipple and GoTopless.org have won court cases that could have been referenced by the plaintiffs in Fort Collins. Perception is changing. We couldn’t have done this thirty years ago.

Matt Wilson, far right, in a group photo from Denver GoTopless Day 2014. - DENVER GOTOPLESS
Matt Wilson, far right, in a group photo from Denver GoTopless Day 2014.
What were the biggest lessons that you've learned about how to put together the event over the course of your participation — or has the enthusiasm of those taking part helped make your job easy?

The biggest lesson I’ve learned about organizing the event is the toll it takes when trying to be a one-man army; I hit burnout a couple times. This cannot be a solo enterprise. Luckily, over the years, I’ve found highly enthusiastic co-organizers to assist. Mia Jean and Brian Gantz have been invaluable. Newcomer Amarie Söderlind-Fisher is going to help us achieve nonprofit status. Many others too numerous to list are volunteering this year; they are greatly appreciated. Delegation has been a growing experience for me, one I’m thankful for. With an event of this scope and importance, a team environment is indispensable.

How early do you start planning the next year's event, and how do you go about pulling all the various threads together?

Every year is a learning experience. We have a couple of months until we’re able to turn in next year’s permit application, so post-event, we take stock of what worked well and what can be improved upon. We’ll be harnessing GoTopless Day momentum to promote smaller, more frequent gatherings in Denver parks to help normalize topless freedom. We primarily utilize email plus Facebook groups and chat to maintain contact, plus have occasional meetings to hash out key agenda items.

What's new or different about this year's event?

This year, we’re putting a special public call-out to anyone with a talent to attend. Jugglers, hula-hoopers, dancers, artists, musicians, magicians, cosplay and more. We want this year’s event to be totally focused on participants’ empowerment and enjoyment, providing an environment that promotes participant interaction and making new friends. We’re simplifying the event to keep a more grassroots feel. We also want the participants to clearly understand how powerful a statement they’re making. Women have marched for their rights throughout our nation’s history. We follow in their footsteps. Out attendees are the kinds of people who don’t just complain about the world, they get out there and help to change it.

What inspired the changes?

On the day of last year’s event, it felt like our message got eclipsed by sponsorship. That’s not something we’d like to repeat. While fundraising is increasingly necessary as we grow, our message can be received only if we clearly communicate what we’re about.

What part of this year's event are you looking forward to the most?

Every year, it’s seeing participants enjoy themselves through such a (currently) unique experience. So much bravery, empowerment and freedom. In the midst of today’s polarizing headlines and toxic politics, GoTopless Day is an incredibly positive experience.

click to enlarge The response to Denver GoTopless Day 2018, which took place at Skyline Park, inspired a return to the event's traditional Civic Center Park location. - NOAH GRAHAM PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF DENVER GOTOPLESS
The response to Denver GoTopless Day 2018, which took place at Skyline Park, inspired a return to the event's traditional Civic Center Park location.
Do you have a guess as to how many people might attend this year, and do you expect that it might constitute a record crowd?

Too early to guess, but we can hope! Our Civic Center Park permit allows us wide range, and the park’s Bannock Street meadow is a beautiful location bracketed between the Capitol building and the Denver courthouse. Our event is momentous, and we want as many people to join us as possible. Hopefully, everyone who hears about it will help spread the word (hint-hint).

If the attendance increases, does that make a difference in terms of how you weigh success? Or are the sheer numbers secondary to the fact that the event takes place annually and is increasingly becoming part of Denver's summertime fabric?

In the first years, every year was a huge increase over years prior, and we celebrated it every time. Though hundreds participated in last year’s event, our attendance experienced its first slight dip, which I was concerned about. But success isn’t about everything always going perfect. It’s getting back up after stumbles, learning from experience and driving on toward the goal. And we are bolstered: Denver’s park ranger and police departments are gracious and welcoming. News reports are positive. We have a reputation for good crowd control during the march, and our participants are always on good behavior. It truly is one of Denver’s most popular and positive events.

GoTopless days take place all over the country, as well as in other countries, but the one in Denver is among the most prominent nationally. Is there something about the event that seems to fit the style and culture of Denver that's led to its popularity here?

Denver is a vibrant city full of different cultures. Artists, dancers, musicians, bankers, attorneys, entrepreneurs and CEOs, military, colleges, etc., etc. Some smoke weed, some don’t. Denver’s population is similar to cities across the country — full of people living as best they can in a world grown increasingly dysfunctional. I can imagine other regions having a more entrenched sense of Puritan propriety, but I think what’s skyrocketed the popularity in Denver is clear communication of an ironic truth: Topless equality promotes healthier relationships and a more positive society. Every year, we prove it more and more.

Denver GoTopless Day is scheduled to take place from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday, August 25, at Civic Center Park, with a parade down the 16th Street Mall slated for 12:30 p.m. Click to access the 2019 Denver GoTopless Day pamphlet and the Facebook event page.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts