It wasn’t anything Ms. Schnee was wearing that got their attention. It’s what she wasn’t wearing. Ms. Schnee was topless — riding down the road wearing nothing but shorts, shoes and a helmet and just letting the rest all hang out.
Calls quickly started pouring into the Leicester Police Department. Before she could finish her ride back to Worcester, two police cruisers had pulled Ms. Schnee over.
"They were trying to tell me I was doing something wrong, and I argued back that no, it’s not, it’s legal," Ms. Schnee said.
Is it? Depending on the situation and your interpretation of Massachusetts law, it could be.
Ms. Schnee knows a bit about the subject. She’s a member of Topless Equality, a group that advocates for the right of women to bare their chests just like men. And this isn’t her first foray into going topless. The 38-year-old single mother of two, 8 and 10, routinely walks around her Webster Square neighborhood bare-chested, rides her bike, mows the lawn, hangs out in her yard. If it’s warm out, off comes the shirt, bra and all. She often wears pasties — small stickers that cover up the nipples and areolae of the breasts. She knows what she’s doing. It’s a way to skirt around the letter of the law and she was wearing them when police pulled her over.
"You don’t even actually have to, but it’s way easier to get out of trouble when you are wearing them in this state because the laws are shady," Ms. Schnee said.
As officers spoke with her on the side of Route 9, it was unclear if what she was doing was actually illegal.
"So, after talking with them for about five minutes they said, ‘Well, just get out of Leicester so we don’t have to deal with the calls. Just go back to Worcester,’ " Ms. Schnee said.
Leicester Police Chief James J. Hurley says his officers did the right thing in trying to assess the situation and ultimately sending Ms. Schnee on her way. In 29 years in policing, Chief Hurley says he’s never encountered a situation quite like this. Sure, there’s the occasional call about the nude sunbather or the person flashing someone. But Ms. Schnee was riding her bike, she was wearing pasties and she had a sign on her bike promoting Topless Equality, raising the issue as to whether her actions constituted a political protest and therefore protected speech.
"We looked at both the indecent exposure and open and gross statutes and the question is if her chest area is not completely exposed is it a violation of those statues? And we are not sure," Chief Hurley said. Many might think the laws on women exposing their chests are cut and dry. They’re not.
Leicester police put together a file on the incident and sent it to Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr.’s office to get their opinion. District attorney spokesman Timothy J. Connolly said the DA’s office is reviewing it.
But there’s something else to Ms. Schnee’s background that no one seeing her ride that day could have known by casual observation. In fact, a lot of people don’t know. Ms. Schnee used to be a man. She had gender reassignment surgery in June 2011 and breast augmentation last year. Prior to that, her topless ride would not have likely created any stir at all.
The transition, Ms. Schnee said, saved her life, although it ultimately cost her her marriage. Before the transition she struggled with her identity and had gone as far as to plan suicide, she said. But having lived as both a man and a woman undeniably gives her an uncommon perspective on the topless equality issue.
"This puts me in a unique position to fight for topless rights since it is a right that I lost when a single letter was changed on my driver’s license — from ‘M’ to ‘F,’" Ms. Schnee said.
Topless Equality is one of several organized groups promoting equal laws for men and women when it comes to exposing their tops. Working toward changing laws is part of their goal, but they also work simply to clarify the laws we do have.
Massachusetts has several laws dealing with nudity, but the particulars of the laws are sometimes vague. The law considers a woman’s breasts uncovered if they’re exposed just "below a point immediately above the top of the areolae." But the law also implies some sort of intent to shock in order to be considered illegal.
Ms. Schnee contends she is simply doing acceptable things and happens to be topless. Is it her responsibility if people are shocked?
The issue may be muddled in Massachusetts, but other states have taken a more definitive stand. In 1992, the New York Court of Appeals ruled in favor of two women who had been arrested for taking their shirts off in Rochester, ruling that the public nudity law was discriminatory. That ruling got its first real test in 2005 when a New York City woman sued the city and won $29,000 after she was detained for 12 hours for going topless. But occasional detentions, arrests and summons of bare-breasted women continued. In March, New York City police were read orders at 10 consecutive roll calls instructing officers that a woman simply exposing her breasts in public was not illegal. And if crowds gathered around topless women, creating a public safety issue, officers were to order the crowds to disperse. Whether or not members of the crowd are topless is not to be a factor in whether they are asked to leave.
But Chief Hurley says the kind of public disturbance that was caused by Ms. Schnee’s actions are the primary concern of his department. She was topless, people were reacting to that and his department had to respond.
"I think the responsibility falls on both of them," Chief Hurley said. "We all have an obligation to not be distracted in our driving. She’s looking to draw attention to herself."
"Well, I’m disturbing a few people’s peace," Ms. Schnee said, "but a whole lot of other people are really enjoying it. Maybe it slows traffic down, to take pictures, and maybe some people don’t like it, but it’s the human body."
In her Webster Square neighborhood, where Ms. Schnee can be seen throughout the warmer weather walking around topless, she says she’s heard few direct complaints from neighbors.
"I’ve been wandering around my property topless, and naked sometimes, too," she said. "Who cares what the neighbors think? I mean, there’s lots of them around. I’m in Worcester."
But not everyone is OK with the topless woman in the neighborhood. Neighbors on the tightly knit, middle-class street reacted with instant recognition last week when asked if they were familiar with their neighbor’s bare-skinned behavior. But in a neighborhood where people generally try to mind their own business, folks were reluctant to speak out, and no one wanted to give their name. Reactions ranged from tacit acceptance to outrage. Some say they just laugh. But others voice concern for the children in the neighborhood — as well as for Schnee’s children, who they say are sometimes out with her while she’s walking topless.
That notion that they’re being harmed by the experience is something Ms. Schnee rejects.
"I’m topless and even nude in front of my kids all the time," she said. "For them it’s nothing. They don’t see it as anything strange at all. They just don’t care."
She says her children have adjusted to her transition.
"This is just how our family is," she said. "It’s just a little different. Daddy has breasts and Daddy is now a girl. To them it’s completely normal."
The arguments Ms. Schnee makes are not new — the duality of a culture where artwork and sculptures are publicly displayed featuring exposed breasts, the ability of heavier men with large chests to go topless, the fact that in some other cultures it’s perfectly natural. It’s the sexualization people place on breasts that make people uncomfortable, she argues. It’s something we teach our children.
None of that changes the reaction of people when they see her, though. It doesn’t change the calls to police, the shock to some people and the question they routinely ask: "Can she do that?"
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