One day after Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey approved Nantucket's bylaw to allow anyone to go topless on island beaches, the Select Board discussed the new bylaw that has grabbed national headlines.
"I’ve had texts from conservative friends sort of teasing us, but I said I don’t think it’s going to change too much," Select Board member Matt Fee said. "People are going to do what they did. I think it will be fine. Unless a group is coming out to make a point, I think for the most part life is going to go on. But I’ve been wrong before."
In a statement released hours after Healey's decision, the town requested "residents and visitors, when exercising their rights under the new bylaw, to abide by stipulations in the amendment. We ask everyone to be patient and respectful as the island adapts to this first-of-its-kind bylaw in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts."
While the Select Board discussed the need to further clarify the bylaw - for example, how exactly should "beach" be defined? - town counsel John Giorgio advised the board to take a wait-and-see approach to determine if any tweaks are necessary.
"A season of experience with the bylaw would be very helpful," Giorgio said. "We don’t know to what extent this is going to take hold in Nantucket. I think everyone knows what a beach is without having to define it."
Giorgio said the Attorney General's office had received extensive feedback from the public opposed to the bylaw in the run-up to Healey's decision, as well as an eight-page legal analysis from the Massachusetts chapter of the ACLU advocating in favor of its passage.
"There are a lot of concerns about what having this bylaw on the books, what kind of behavior might be promoted or occur," Giorgio said. "The takeaway is that in the state there are laws against indecent exposure and lewd behavior and adequate statutes on the books to prevent any kind of innappropriate behavior on the beaches if it occurs. It doesn't preclude the town and police department from enforcing those criminal statutes."
While the bylaw had already been endorsed by island voters at Town Meeting on a 327 to 242 vote back in May, it still required Healey's endorsement to become law.
The petition was spearheaded by island resident Dorothy Stover to seek “equality for all genders on all island beaches." In the wake of Healey's decision, Stover called the approval a "community effort."
"When I submitted this article a year ago, it was because I had the realization that something wasn’t right with the current law," Stover said. "How can being topless on a beach for a female body result in being arrested, a $300 fine and the possibility of being put on the sex offender list? There were islanders with a variety of opinions on this issue. As a community we have welcomed the discussion of opposing viewpoints. For a year, islanders have educated each other on why this change is important. I have received feedback from countless women and families, sharing how this change of law would support them. I’ve had people reach out that never wanted to come to Nantucket because they thought we were ‘stuffy’, and now they want to book their trip."
Stover, who was born and raised on the island and is the daughter of the late Town Clerk Catherine Flanagan Stover, is a sex educator who enjoys going to Nantucket’s unofficial nude beach near Miacomet.
But not all island residents were pleased with Healey's decision. An extensive debate over the ramifications of the bylaw has been playing out in online discussions on social media sites, with some believing that the unintended consequences could be more significant than people imagine.
"This is a lot of time and energy for a 'freedom' that Nantucket isn't ready for," island resident Heather Nardone. "Taking pictures of anyone is legal and the fact that society in the U.S. still sexualizes breasts makes it creepy that this is what we want to do to perform 'equality.' I think of the underage children and the amount of creeps out there. If we think that Nantucket being topless is going to stop the fact that breasts are sexualized in America, sad mistake."
In Massachusetts, state law prohibits women from going topless on public beaches. Anyone who intentionally exposes their genitals, buttocks, or female breasts in a way that is intended to produce “alarm or shock” can be charged with open and gross lewdness and lascivious behavior, which carries a potential penalty of up to three years in prison.
But Healey wrote on Tuesday that "Article 71 is but the most recent example of Nantucket deciding what is and what is not permissible on public and private beaches in the Town. Like all towns in Massachusetts, Nantucket has long held the authority to so decide, and has exercised it on numerous occasions."
Healey also addressed in her decision that the bylaw was written to apply to all beaches - both public and private.
"Based on this language in Section 66-1, we construe the by-law to apply to private beaches to the extent owners of private beaches give 'express or implied consent to the use of their private property for any lawful purpose thereon'," Healey wrote.