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No rocking out with your tits out at the beer fest

Woman told to put top back on 'so guys don't get the wrong idea'

Queer activist and photographer R Jeanette Martin was told to put her shirt back on at the Toronto Festival of Beer on Aug 7. Credit: Andrea Houston

It seems it’s still a boys club at the Toronto Festival of Beer. On the last day of the 17-year-old festival a woman was reprimanded by security when she tried to go topless, surrounded by hundreds of topless men and bikini-clad women.

As the rain poured down at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) throughout the afternoon on Aug 7, the soggy and intoxicated crowd grew increasingly boisterous, and many ripped off clothing to dance in the rain.

So when queer activist and photographer R Jeanette Martin was dared by another woman to take off her top, she happily shed a layer, revealing a black bra underneath. (Full disclosure: Martin was at the event with this reporter.)

Moments after Martin removed her T-shirt, a female security guard was at Martin’s side, telling her sternly to “put the shirt back on.”

“Why?” Martin asked. The security guard, who refused to provide her name, said, “There are guys here who will take that the wrong way.”

The security guard also told her, “That’s the rules of the festival.”

But Martin wasn’t buying it, so she asked to speak to a supervisor. Meanwhile, Xtra was describing the confrontation on Twitter (see below). Several people responded with tweets that included hashtags such as #sexism, #doublestandard or @SlutwalkTO.

While Martin waited for the supervisor to arrive, word spread quickly about what had happened. A few people within earshot shouted, “That’s bullshit!” And a couple other women hoisted up their tops to flash their breasts in protest.

“The last time I checked, it is perfectly legal for women to go topless in Ontario,” Martin said. “This is a sexist double standard. Many men here are topless, and many of the women are in bikinis. How is a bra any different? I wasn’t even really topless.”

Martin is right. A judicial ruling in 1991 opened the door for women to go topless almost anywhere they please.

In fact, July marked the 20-year anniversary of women having the legal right to go topless in the province. The right was won after Gwen Jacob, then 19, decided to sunbath topless in Guelph but was charged with one count of committing an indecent act and fined $75. During the court case, Jacob argued that women’s breasts are just fat tissue, the same as men’s. In his ruling, the judge said women’s breasts are “part of the female body that is sexually stimulating to men, both by sight and touch,” and should be covered up in public. But that changed in 1996 when the Ontario Court of Appeal overturned the conviction, concluding that there was nothing degrading or dehumanizing about exposing women’s breasts.

Amanda Gray, security supervisor for the beer festival, tells Xtra the security guard who initially asked Martin to put her top back on was “spoken to.” Gray assured it won’t happen again.

But Gray says security people frequently have to diffuse hostile situations that are triggered “when a guy grabs a girl. We’ve had a lot of fights and stuff because guys do grab girls. That’s why I suggested [putting her top on].”

“She can have her top off. It’s just more for her safety. We find the guys tend to harass a lot of the ladies when they’re walking around with next to nothing on,” Gray says. “We can’t do anything about the exhibitioners [such as go-go dancers]. If she chooses to walk around like that, it’s fine, but for her personal safety she should have her top on.”

Men who grab women are bounced from the CNE grounds immediately, Gray stresses. She would not say how frequently women experience unwanted harassment at the beer festival.