Power is not given. Power is taken. A 1,000 mile bare-chested walk

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Pennsylvania Ave SE, Capitol Hill, Washington D.C. July 9, 2016. Paulette McKenzie Leaphart (center, next to the person in the blue t-shirt), arrives with supporters at the end of her 1,000 mile bare-chested walk.
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Capitol Hill, Washington D.C. July 9, 2016. Paulette McKenzie Leaphart (center left, holding the white t-shirt) finishes her 1,000 mile walk from Mississippi to the U.S. Capitol. She made the entire walk bare-chested to raise awareness for breast cancer research, treatment and fair insurance coverage.

I once heard a speech by an African-American Federal Judge in which he respectfully counseled a predominantly female audience, “Remember, power is not given.  Power is taken.”

Standing next to Paulette McKenzie Leaphart on July 9, as she completed her 1,000 mile bare-chested walk from Mississippi to the steps of the U.S. Capitol building, I felt that power.

Paulette is an undeniable force and exudes strength, wisdom and love.  She carried with her a message of peace and unity, but also a demand to amend national health care to screen for, treat and cover breast cancer.  A direct and clear-speaking woman, Paulette told us breast cancer isn’t pretty, or cute.  Breast cancer isn’t pink ribbons.  Cancer is ugly and painful.  And we need to talk about it that way.

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Capitol Hill, Washington D.C. July 9, 2016. A friend forwarded me Paulette’s story in June and I contacted Paulette in advance to ask her blessing to join her on her journey’s final leg. She warmly invited us to walk in bare-chested with her. Since I’m a blogger, and come with perceived context, I wanted to make sure she felt our presence would contribute and not distract from her message, which is that Congress should appropriate significant and meaningful funds toward breast cancer research, treatment and insurance coverage.

 

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Capitol Hill, Washington D.C. July 9, 2016. My intention was to join Paulette and her supporters for the entire final five mile leg of her walk, but we were coming in straight from our Pittsburgh outing and arrived late. We finally found her walking on Pennsylvania Ave SE and when we tried (unsuccessfully) to quietly blend in, she greeted us warmly with hugs and introductions and made sure that everyone around her understood we were welcome and invited. It was an incredible gesture.

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Pennsylvania Ave SE, Capitol Hill, Washington D.C. July 9, 2016. Paulette’s 8 year-old daughter and I speaking about how hot the day was. She had been listening to us speak to her mother and friends about the legality of female bare-chestedness in Washington D.C. Apparently at the walk’s start, some women had actually apologized to Paulette for “having nipples” because they couldn’t walk in bare-chested with her, thinking it was illegal. After listening to us, Madeline asked me some more questions about the whole idea and after a few minutes we just walked along chatting normally about whatever. Mother and daughter share the same amazing spirit.

The details of her entire journey can be found here.

Her actual day began in Anacostia at the New Macedonia Baptist Church, whose warm and loving congregation volunteered to be her local host.  They provided route marshals and assisted with water and shuttles.  The Natalie Williams Breast Care Foundation organized the speeches, public address systems and permits for the gathering in Senate Park adjacent to the U.S. Capitol.

Paulette led a mix of bare-chested and non bare-chested supporters of all genders right through the heart of Washington D.C. and received many gestures of support and gratitude from passersby.

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Pennsylvania Avenue SE, Washington D.C. July 9, 2016. The strength of the survivors’ group was breathtaking.

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Senate Park, Capitol Hill, Washington D.C. July 9, 2016. Hundreds of supporters and breast cancer survivors gathered to share their stories.

Several speakers told similar stories of difficulty in getting their doctors to take seriously their initial concerns about lumps or abnormalities.  Natalie Williams, founder of the Natalie Williams Breast Care Foundation, said it took several return visits and adamant insistence to get her doctor to agree to test for breast cancer, which turned out to be present.  Even after cancer treatment and recovery, she said she had to convince her doctor to retest when she felt symptoms returning!  And the cancer had in fact returned!  She said her doctor repeatedly told her she was overreacting.  She also spoke about how her modesty affected her care, and her gradual loss of modesty as it related to her breasts.

Aside from the breast cancer awareness, I have to say what struck me most was the open-mindedness of the New Macedonia congregation and other people who gathered in support of breast cancer survivors.  At first, and it was palpable for a few minutes, there was some confusion about why Hontouni Heart and I were there and why we were bare-chested and whether or not we were going to bring legal trouble to the march or divert attention.  But as we began to talk to people, and as Paulette introduced us, and as women and men alike began to hear that female bare-chestedness has been legal in D.C. for 30 years, and as people began to understand we were there in support and that we were bare-chested for the same reasons the survivors were bare-chested… to take ownership of and destigmatize our bodies and health and to feel free and happy…the gestures of support and acceptance were really just overwhelming.

Let me be clear, this day was not about Gingerbread and Hontouni Heart.  It was about Paulette and Madeline and LaShawn and Natalie and Zee and all the other amazing survivors and family members affected by breast cancer.  But to feel that openness and acceptance, the day after the Dallas shootings, in the context of the tension our country was feeling, made my heart happy, truly.

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Senate Park, Capitol Hill, Washington D.C. July 9, 2016. I include this photo for a couple reasons. First, beautiful spirits all around. Second, to show how important imagery can be. We lined up for a photo with Paulette that placed her in the middle, where she deserved to be. All sorts of people took photos of us like that, bracketing the guest of honor and the reason for the day. But Jeff, my fiancee and the photographer of this photo, didn’t arrive until after other friends had naturally stepped in to join the photo. So our photo has me in the middle, which makes it look like I’m the reason this photo is being taken, which I emphasize is not the case. I wouldn’t even include it except it’s our only photo of this crew, and the good vibes associated therewith, so with that explanation I share it here. I love the love.
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Senate Park, Capitol Hill, Washington D.C. July 9, 2016. Members of an a capella group from the New Macedonia Baptist Church. I didn’t get their names, but they were incredible singers. This photo was set up at the request of several of the women in the church, with the consent of the men pictured, of course. They understood what we were doing, and what the whole day was about. Equality means equality, for everyone. We can bridge our perceived and real divides. I truly believe this. Several members of the church invited us to future events and one female asked to join us on a future bare-chested walk.

 

In the end, Paulette asserted this important truth: breasts do not define us as women, breast tissue does not make someone female and the removal of breast tissue does not remove femaleness.  Paulette said on her Facebook page that she has received bullying comments which refer to her as “he” or “him,” and that attempt to demean her femaleness because of her breast removal.  She told me personally, and has said publicly, that her great realization was that her identity lies within her, that her strength lies within her and her belief in God.

Breasts are a body part, not an identity. When we remove stigmas and preconceived notions about the female body, feminine modesty and gender identity, it enables us to have real conversations about our happiness and health.

 

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9 thoughts on “Power is not given. Power is taken. A 1,000 mile bare-chested walk

  1. Inspiring report! It’s outrageous that some people insulted Paulette for being bare-chested. Paulette’s eight-year-old daughter could be emboldened to be top free too if she saw other little girls top free. I don’t think I can insert any photos in a comment, but if you want I’ll send you photos as email attachments to use in a future post.

    Like

  2. A powerful and inspiring article, which is an important lesson for everyone interested in equality.

    Did you get a sense of Paulette’s daughter’s (Madeline?) attitude about female top freedom/barechestedness and equality following her mother’s walk and encounter with you?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. Interesting to ponder that we use these terms assuming we can tell from a person’s appearance which gender to assign… maybe it’s time to just go with a gender neutral term. Anyway… I appreciate your careful read. Be well.

      Like

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