Catharine Pierce is fully dressed when she plants herself in an oversized chair that nearly swallows her. Her attire is odd on such a warm day: She’s in a pink shirt with matching sweatpants. Usually, on days like this, Pierce tends her outside garden, and the 52-year-old doesn’t typically wear a top while gardening, only thong underwear and, of course, gardening gloves.
But you already knew that, didn’t you? It seems over the past year that everyone has heard about Boulder’s infamous gardener, a woman who has irked her neighbors and the parents and teachers of a nearby school while getting slammed from media pundits and local bloggers alike. But for Catharine Pierce and her husband, Robert, it’s become a fight for freedom of expression—not just a personal battle.
Deemed the “topless gardener” by the press, Catharine Pierce has received complaints about gardening sans shirt since last year. She thought wearing pasties and duct tape over her nipples would make her more discreet, but that did not seem to quell the complaints. Meanwhile, Robert Pierce has gardened in a thong for the past several years and hasn’t received any public opposition. She started making headlines when Boulder Housing Partners, their landlord, threatened the Pierces with eviction if her hobby continued. In April, Catharine and Robert Pierce appealed to the Boulder City Council, which approved a new nudity ordinance that continues to let women go shirtless. While Boulder Housing Authority had proposed changing their rules to ban exposed breasts, they eventually followed the city council’s lead.
As she folds her legs underneath her tiny frame in her sun-ripened living room, Pierce recounts her story of how she triumphed over what she believes is modern-day discrimination.
“The very first time I started to go top-free was last year,” she says with a tinge of a Southern accent. “My husband’s been doing it since the day we moved in. He moved in here with a thong on, nobody objected.”
The two residents moved into the brand-new neighborhood in 2001 but have called Boulder their home for the past 35 years. Regardless, the current neighborhood conflict hasn’t derailed the Pierces from changing their lifestyle. Together, they have successfully demanded equal rights—saying there should not be a distinction between a woman’s bare breasts and a man’s shirtless torso in Boulder’s newly approved nudity ordinance.
“If I take off my shirt, then a woman should be able to take off hers,” Robert Pierce says. “The trouble is women don’t get respect when they take off their shirt. So we’re trying to educate the public and have them respect women whether their dressed or undressed.”
But her gardening attire—or lack thereof—is only half the problem. The other half is the fact that the Pierces live behind the Shining Mountain Waldorf School and next to the school’s primary bus stop. This has rightfully given fuel to the community’s objections; though, Robert is quick to debunk that protest.
“There has never been a case where nudity has offended a child so much where it has caused irreparable damage. Never,” he says. “So how does it hurt a child? It’s a natural thing.”
Robert Pierce speaks from experience. He grew up with a nudist family and has raised his own family in a nudist environment. Though their children have matured and left the nest, he says neither he nor their children were ever socially damaged from the exposure.
“Our kids got along with other kids, and we’ve been doing this our whole lives,” he says. “When I was growing up, my family never saw anything wrong with it, and we were the only nudists in town. But friends came over, they played with us, there were no jokes said about us.”
Despite the conflict, the Pierces say they try to maintain consideration and respect for their neighbors’ space, making a point to avoid contact with any children when they are gardening. Catharine Pierce will move to the backyard if she sees them playing up front, or vice versa.
“We’ve had four or five neighbors move into the duplex next to us,” she says. “Every time someone else moved in I’ve gone over and introduced myself and my husband and say, ‘You know, we’re naturists and nudists. You’ll see me outside topless, if you have any objections because of your kids, let me know. I’ll do my best to not be outside when you or your kids are out there.’”
Taped to the outside of their door is a printed note card, warning anyone who approaches the household that the residents are nudists, and if any visitors aren’t comfortable with the visual, then they shouldn’t knock. They say their neighbors haven’t approach them directly—nor does it seem they ever will.
“All of a sudden, you get caught in the situation in which neighbors won’t talk to you, management takes an attitude toward you, and you’re in the complete wrong with no one to turn to. …If you don’t like it, tough titty. Move out, leave,” Catharine Pierce says.
To make their point of view heard, the couple went in front of city council to object to possible adjustments in the city’s nudity ordinance. No residents at the meeting objected and they were the only ones there to oppose expanding the nudity ordinance.
“It was mind boggling that out of all the police reports and complaints called on us, not one person showed up from this community or any place else to object to it,” she says. “I couldn’t believe it. I expected a lot more people if they had a problem with it.”
On April 6, city council voted to keep the nudity ordinance the way it was—allowing both men and women to be topless. Soon after, the Boulder Housing Partners decided to follow city council. Catharine Pierce calls it a major win and a step forward for women and equal rights. The achievement wasn’t a personal gain for the couple, she says.
“When it came out into the newspaper that I won, I just sat there thinking what did I really win?” she says. “I didn’t win anything—it was for the community. It was the city council that decided and their understanding of the law that they couldn’t discriminate. Not unless they’re going to do the same thing to men and make men wear a top, too. It’s no difference.”
And despite the neighborhood commotion, they’ve received support.
“We have gotten more kudos for having (courage) to stand up for civil rights,” she says. “From what I understand, very few people take a stand for equal rights between a man and woman in the last 30 years.”
But the fight isn’t over. They’re both in the advocacy business and are fully committed to demanding equal rights. They say they mainly fight for the rights of children with disabilities. Although they’re both receiving disability payments from the government right now, their equal rights work is a regular day job for them; Robert Pierce wouldn’t elaborate in what kind of disability he or his wife has, saying it was beside the point.
But even with the success, Catharine and Robert Pierce still feel largely segregated from their community and their neighbors.
“It’s amazing because whether I’m topless or completely dressed, people will say you stay away from that woman, don’t talk to her, don’t associate with her,” she says. “It’s kind of like, wow, you know, I haven’t done anything. I don’t even know the neighbors around here.”
Regardless of the dirty looks, Robert Pierce reflects on the whole community conflict, and he’s glad they stood their ground.
“We’re just two boring people wanting to get out and have a little fun gardening,” Robert Pierce says. “And this was one issue that we weren’t going to ask permission on.”