FARMINGTON – Under the afternoon sun Friday, they came pouring onto Main Street, a wave of people accompanied by a clown and a unicyclist, flags, signs, video cameras and bumper-to-bumper traffic — with dozens of topless women and men leading the way.
Hundreds of people lined the sidewalks and streets of this college town while clusters of protesters held signs in opposition to the march.
In the crowd was 104-year-old Marion Wing of Phillips, who looked on 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 march she attended in April in Portland.
UMF officials said the university had no involvement in the march, which ended at a park on campus.
Resident Elaine Graham took the most active protest role, following topless women along the route and holding up a blue blanket to cover them.
Before the march, Graham confronted Simoneau.
“I want to send a message that public nudity degrades girls,” said Graham, who arrived at 11 a.m. to begin her public protest.
“You’re degrading yourself,” Graham told 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 Meetinghouse Park, Simoneau stood up bare-chested in a gazebo and rallied those assembled to march in the name of women’s rights.
Simoneau told the crowd that the march highlighted the fact that it’s legal in Maine for women to go topless in public, and that she 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.
Several Farmington police officers directed traffic and kept watch. Police said they received no reports of problems or accidents related to the march.
“It was very quiet and peaceful,” said Bonnie Pomeroy, dispatch secretary for Farmington police.
Actually, it wasn’t all 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.
A topless man rode a unicycle among the marchers on the sidewalk, and Russ Mathers of Carthage walked around with his face painted like 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. “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 a 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.
Marks said she was bothered by “50 cameras snapping all at once” when she took her shirt off.
“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 Simoneau’s younger sister, said it was her first time being topless in public and she was a little nervous with the hectic scene. But it was worth it to further equality rights with her sister, she said.