OCEAN CITY — Chelsea Covington says she never intended that her insistence that women be treated fairly while walking the beach would become a national story about appearing topless in Ocean City.
The Eastern Shore resident felt the state’s constitution gave her the right to bare her chest like a man on the resort’s beach. She has appeared topless on Delmarva beaches some 30 times since first asking the Ocean City police last year about the issue, the 29-year-old said.
There was never an incident when she walked the beach shirtless, she said.
“I have been sexually assaulted, physically grabbed and groped and things just like almost every woman has while being fully clothed,” Covington said. “And it has never happened when I’ve been bare-chested.”
Asking police whether it was OK to appear topless generated press coverage, which was followed by online negativity, she said, part of the reason she had pre-emptively assumed the pseudonym Covington when she started her blog in 2015. It was to give her an “iota of security,” she said.
Things got worse after the town convened an emergency meeting June 10 to craft a new ordinance making clear that it was against the law for women to go topless on Maryland’s most popular beach. The attorney general’s office said the ordinance did pass muster with the state’s constitution.
Now the young woman knows she will have to reveal her identity if she moves forward with a lawsuit against Ocean City to secure the right of women to appear topless on the shore. She has retained national civil rights attorney Devon Jacob, who believes women do have the right to appear topless in public under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
“It is disheartening that a few small towns and cities still attempt to make ignorance of the law,” Jacob said. “Ms. Covington and I intend to end discrimination against females in Ocean City. We will fight to make Ocean City a safe place for everyone to enjoy equally.”
But many Ocean City residents and visitors disagree with Covington’s beliefs. The town’s mayor and council were inundated with emails and phone calls after some believed Ocean City was becoming topless.
“I think there was some misinformation that OC was no longer going to enforce any activity of toplessness, or that we were going to become a topless beach and that was something we needed to address quickly,” said Mayor Rick Meehan.
After the town clarified its position at an emergency session and posted its position banning topless sunbathing on Facebook, the town statement explaining the new ordinance got 13,777 shares and 3,393 comments — most of them favorable.
By comparison, the mayor said he got a handful of correspondence in support of females strolling topless.
Despite the bars, bong shops and crude T-shirts sold along the famed Boardwalk, Jim Andrews said Ocean City has always been a place for families.
“A place for the kids to be able to play out on the sand and make sandcastles,” said Andrews, a retired Ocean City and Baltimore County police officer who grew up on the Boardwalk in the 1950s. “They don’t need to take that away from the family-oriented resort by allowing women to walk around without tops on.”
Legal experts in Maryland say Covington will have an “uphill battle” winning the right to walk the beach topless. But federal judges around the country have blocked local bans prohibiting women from appearing topless.
The spark of her activism
Despite being an advocate for women appearing shirtless in public, Covington said she doesn’t live her life topless. And she insisted that she isn’t an exhibitionist.
Her hobbies are easily accessed on the Eastern Shore where she grew up. Camping, kayaking, swimming and hiking — sometimes topless as noted on her blog that documents her travels.
“I love being in nature,” she said. “It makes you really connect with yourself, with the world around you, and be aware.”
Covington’s path to activism was “an evolution” for her that happened as she grew more comfortable with herself, following a “long period of low self-esteem.”
After soul searching and reading about women’s rights, Covington summoned the courage to go to Washington, D.C., in June 2015 for a bare-chested outing. Despite women being legally allowed to appear topless in the District of Columbia for more than 30 years, police officers told the male companion who accompanied Covington to have her cover up. The officer would only speak to her friend at first, and only eventually addressed her directly, she recalled.
But that incident left her feeling less than human, and sparked her activism into “normalizing” the female body.
“I realized (then) that this had deeper meaning,” Covington said. “It’s not just about who can take a shirt off and who can’t. It’s about whether women are seen as equal human beings.”
Covington said she’s been fully supported by many in her family, which has helped during the recent press coverage and subsequent slams she’s received on social media.
When she explained how she felt to her parents, she recalled, her mother was “astounded in a good way.” Her father said, “You go, girl.”
“They were proud that I was standing up not only for what I believe in, but what is right and what this country stands for,” she said.
A non-history of toplessness
Toplessness has never been an issue on Ocean City beaches.
Shannon DeWalt has visited Ocean City for 45 years and cannot recall one time when the new ordinance would have made a difference.
“I’ve never noticed a problem with this,” said DeWalt, a La Plata, Maryland, resident. “And I’m not so sure I consider Ocean City a family-friendly (town) to begin with any longer. For the last 10 or 15 years, it’s been more of a party town.”
Instances of women removing their tops have historically been few and far between, said Lindsay Richard, Ocean City Police public information officer.
“It hasn’t really changed since the ordinance was passed, and we very, very rarely had an incident before,” Richard said. “When we did, it was almost always one of our foreign visitors or workers that had come from a country where it was the norm.”
Covington said she doesn’t flaunt her nudity on trips to the beach.
And she does not participate in demonstrations sponsored by the “Topfreedom” organization advocating for women to appear topless, because she wants to be viewed as “normal.” She is aligned with the group’s beliefs — not their tactics.
“My thing has been normalization — doing normal things, just like a man would,” she said.
But as quietly as she has gone about visiting the beach — posting about her outings on her blog — the reaction in Ocean City, among tourists and locals, has been tumultuous.
“As a parent, I am extremely happy to know that I can safely take my kids to the beach,” wrote one commenter on Ocean City’s Facebook page. “OC was about to lose some business. It’s not prudishness, it’s common decency — that’s what nude beaches are for.”
“Thank you,” wrote another. “I would be very disappointed if you let this happen.”
Although there was overwhelming support for the town’s decision, a few brushed off the notion.
“After seeing some men without shirts on down there, what’s the difference?” asked one poster.
Wrote another: “Grow up. Nudity and sexuality are two different things.”
Real physical differences
While other challenges to a topless ban have dealt with freedom of speech or artistic expression under the First Amendment, Jacob and Covington said they would approach a lawsuit from the perspective of equal protection provided in the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
States can provide citizens with additional rights and protections, but Jacob said they cannot limit what is already guaranteed to them by federal law. He believes Covington would be on “stronger ground” in federal court. And his belief isn’t without precedent.
Earlier this year, a federal judge in Denver, Colorado, blocked a similar ban on female toplessness in Fort Collins.
U.S. District Judge R. Brooke Jackson wrote that the ordinance — which mandates women will not knowingly expose their breasts in public — is rooted in discrimination against women.
“Thus, it perpetuates a stereotype engrained in our society that female breasts are primarily objects of sexual desire whereas male breasts are not,” Jackson wrote.
Similar bans have been struck down elsewhere. Women can now legally bare their breasts in the District of Columbia, New York City, Denver and other cities.
Still, Jana Singer, a University of Maryland law professor who teaches and writes on gender discrimination and family law, said the Office of the Attorney General’s advice letter to Ocean City indicates Covington will not have an easy fight.
Though laws that discriminate on the basis of sex or gender are subject to “very exacting scrutiny,” Singer said distinctions based on “real physical differences” tend to be considered the exception.
“The courts have generally been more lenient about different treatment when there’s a plausible argument that the differential treatment is based on this idea of real physical differences, and not stereotypes or generalizations, and not stereotypes or assumptions about men’s and women’s roles,” she said.
Singer does not believe Maryland has dealt with many cases involving “real physical differences,” but cases involving the state’s equal rights amendment have generally aligned with federal doctrine, which suggests distinctions based on “real physical differences” may not be unconstitutional.
She also noted there are other cases in which courts have suggested that separate decency and indecency standards for women and men “are not permissible, or are at least constitutionally vulnerable.”
New York City and the District of Columbia are among the places where courts were persuaded to overturn such laws, and other courts in the nation are currently hearing challenges to similar legislation.
Singer said a court is likely to scrutinize the government’s justification if it perceives that whatever is being challenged is particularly harmful or damaging to whatever group is being affected.
“It’s not a frivolous claim,” she said. “I think it’s a difficult claim to succeed, but certainly there’s unequal treatment; there’s no question that men and women are being treated differently.”