FARMINGTON — Under an afternoon sun today, they came pouring onto Main Street: a massive wave of people accompanied by a clown and unicyclist, flags, signs, cellphones, video cameras, yelling, cheering, horn-honking and bumper-to-bumper traffic.
It could have been a raucous Fourth of July parade. But, no, it was the last day of April — and there were dozens of topless women and men leading the way.
Hundreds of people lined the sidewalks and street of this college town, while clusters of protesters held signs in opposition to the march.
Among the crowd on Main Street was 104-year-old Marion Wing of Phillips, who looked across the street in amazement.
“I’ve never seen anything in my entire life like this and I hope never to again,” Wing said.
Directing the bare-skinned walkers was Andrea Simoneau, 22, of Brooks, a senior at the University of Maine at Farmington who organized “Farmington’s First Female Bodied Topless March,” modeled after a topless march she attended recently in Portland.
UMF officials said the university had no involvement in the march, which ended at a park on campus.
Resident Elaine Graham, wearing a blue baseball cap with a red cross on it, took on the most active protest role by following topless women throughout the route and holding up a blue blanket to cover them.
Before the march, Graham confronted Simoneau and challenged her.
“I want to send a message that public nudity degrades girls,” said Graham, who had arrived at 11 a.m. to begin her public protest. “You’re degrading yourself,” Graham said to Simoneau. “You’re sending the wrong message.”
Simoneau thanked Graham “for coming out to express your opinion” and said she admires that form of free speech as well.
Before the half-mile march started about 1 p.m. in a crowded Meetinghouse Park, a bare-chested Simoneau stood up in a gazebo and rallied the assembled to march in the name of women’s rights. Simoneau told the crowd that the march highlights the fact that it’s legal in Maine for women to go topless in public, but she also wants it to become socially acceptable just as men are able to take off their shirts.
Simoneau said she had chosen to ignore criticism of the march and “focus on empowerment” instead.
“Please be respectful and do not engage protesters,” Simoneau yelled before the march proceeded.
‘Like a circus’
At Tranten’s grocery store on Main Street, shortly after the march concluded, manager Sondra Castonguay said the store had been a little busier than usual because of the large crowds. Otherwise, though, “it’s business as usual here,” she said.
Several Farmington police officers directed traffic and kept watch during the march. Police said they received no reports of problems or accidents related to the march.
“There’s nothing we’ve been made aware of,” said Bonnie Pomeroy, dispatch secretary for Farmington police. “It was very quiet and peaceful.”
Actually, it wasn’t that quiet.
“It’s almost like a circus,” said Dalene Pulk of Carthage, as she held up a protest sign — “Pornography doesn’t belong on the streets” — beside fellow protesters on Main Street.
The circus atmosphere seemed reinforced by a topless male who rode a unicycle among marchers on the sidewalk and Russ Mathers, of Carthage, who walked around with his face painted like the clown villain “The Joker.”
“This doesn’t promote women’s cause — it’s just for fun. What does this prove?” Mathers said. “So I came out to be sillier. I’m out here for fun and to make fun.”
But the message of the march was serious for the people participating.
John Rosenwald, 66, of Farmington, approached one topless woman and asked how he could best support them: joining in or watching silently. He didn’t want to impose on the women’s cause.
“She said joining would be great, so that’s what I’m going to do,” Rosenwald said. “So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to take my shirt off.”
Wearing a pink feather boa around her neck, topless marcher Angela Sweenhart, 39, of Farmington, said it was a “great cause,” even though she was “a little worried” before the march began.
As Sweenhart spoke, a large, gray-bearded man wearing sunglasses and a leather jacket shuffled over, pointed digital camera at her, clicked the button, and turned away. Did that bother her?
“I’m comfortable with that, because I have nothing to be ashamed of,” she said.
Joni Marks, 31, a sophomore at the University of Maine at Augusta, said she decided to join the march because of the “double standard that men can be topless,” while even women who bare their breasts in public to nurse babies can be chided, she said.
Marks said she was bothered by “50 cameras snapping all at once” when she took her shirt off. “It’s like they’ve never seen a boob before; it’s like a peep show,” she said. “I’m a little overwhelmed with everyone here.”
Donald Pinkham, 64, of New Sharon, asked for permission to have his photo taken with Simoneau and said he used to be a member of a nudist colony in Albion.
“To do this really takes a lot of courage,” he said.
Erin Simoneau, 19, of Searsport, Andrea’s younger sister, said it was her first time being topless in public and that she was a little nervous with the hectic scene. But it was worth it to further equality rights with her sister, she said.
“She suggested I come and I said I’d do that for her,” she said.