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Topless Laws and Being Trans: What’s the Deal?

Courtney Demone/Mashable
Credit: Courtney Demone/Mashable

It’s no secret. Whether you’re a trans woman, a trans man, or even non-binary, the state of your chest is kind of a big deal. As a trans man, I’m rarely stepping outside the house without first throwing on a chest compressive binder. My trans female friends eagerly await the day estrogen will gift them with breast development. It’s just a basic, if unfortunate fact, of life that people often use the size and shape of one’s chest as a basis for how they should mentally gender you.

This focus on one’s chest even affects cisgender folks. It’s a known fact that in our society it’s generally acceptable for a man to walk around in public shirtless but a woman who does the same thing will usually find herself slapped with public indecency charges. Photos of shirtless men are typically found to be acceptable on social media but breastfeeding mothers can attest to the fact that even photos of a woman nursing a child are often removed and banned from sites like Facebook.

When it comes to being transgender, knowing how topless laws may or may not affect you is a thorny issue altogether. Regardless of whether or not our legal gender matches our presentation or how we’re generally perceived by other people, our bodies aren’t treated equally under these laws.

Some of you may remember the case of Ashley Del Valle, who was arrested for alleged public exposure of her breasts. Despite the fact that were she male going topless would not be a crime, she was nonetheless arrested, charged, and detained among male inmates and was repeatedly misgendered throughout her ordeal. Her story highlights the paradox that, all too often, local governments push trans people into when it comes to how our bodies are policed and treated.

Even if my ID said that I was legally male, would I still be arrested for taking my shirt off in public considering the fact that I have not had top surgery? While I’m certainly not going to find out for myself, I can’t help but wonder at times. I may have noticeable breast tissue. But there are certainly cis men out there who have bigger chests than I do and yet there’s nothing saying they can’t take their shirts off, even if their chests rival many cis women’s in size.

When does my chest become legal (without top surgery factored in) and my trans female friends’ chests become illegal?

My colleague Parker Molloy asked the same question in an article she wrote for Bustle. She put it well: “…When I started becoming outwardly identifiable by the world-at-large as a woman, my breasts went from “NBD” [no big deal] to “OMG PUT THOSE THINGS AWAY, THINK OF THE CHILDREN!” What a shit show all of this is.”

One of the most intriguing explorations of this concept may have to be the campaign started by writer Courtney Demone. Through Instagram, Demone, a trans woman who’s starting hormones, began posting topless photos of herself. Her question, like mine and Molloy, is the same: “So at what point in my breast development do I need to start covering my nipples? I already feel shameful about them being visible, but at what point does society say it’s unacceptable for them to be out?” Her goal by posting her photos on Instagram and Facebook? To see just when her topless photos will be considered unacceptable.

Both Molloy and Demone touch upon an important point. Just why are female breasts considered inappropriate? Is there really a qualifying difference between male and female breasts? After all, it’s all just fat and tissue.

In our society, the female body tends to be sexualized to a degree that male bodies rarely are outside of your average White Party. Cis women, trans women- if you identify as a woman and present in a feminine matter, this is often considered not as unequal treatment that should be addressed but as some inevitable conclusion to womanhood.

And in my humble opinion? It’s bullshit. What honestly separates one of the bears letting it all hang out at Southern Comfort from your average woman (whether she’s cis or trans)? Because a lot of men happen to find women arousing? If that’s the logic, ban the bears from going shirtless too because there’s a lot of gay and bisexual men who’d love to see them flaunt their stuff in public too.

I may not have as much of a personal stake in the matter (after all, my chest is usually flattened by a binder before I even dare step outside of the house and remains covered by a few layers of clothing) but nonetheless, how can I not notice? As trans people, our bodies are subject to public scrutiny every day and interpretations on how to consider or treat us vary.

In a perfect world, all bodies would be respected in the same manner, regardless of whether they’re cis or trans or what gender the owner identifies as. And I hope the day that happens comes soon. In the meantime, many of us are wondering the same thing as Courtney Demone. #DoIHaveBoobsNow?

About Byron James Kimball

Byron James Kimball
Byron James Kimball is a freelance writer based in Salem, Oregon. Along with a love of food and gaming, Byron is passionate about the issues that the transgender community faces on a daily basis.

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