ROGERS PARK — The moment Barbra Mann and her 10 compatriots got on the Red Line at Loyola, they blended in with the families and commuters on the southbound train. Scattered throughout the car, it was hard to tell the group was even together.
But after one stop, Mann lifted her hands above her head, and all 11 people took off their shirts and pants. They were headed into the Loop and then out to Wicker Park, and they were determined to stay in the underwear for the whole ride.
Sunday's "No Pants Train Takeover for Gender Equality" was the first event of Chicago Underwear Week, an annual series of exhibitionist events organized by Mann and her friend Baramesi Ra aimed at promoting gender equality and body acceptance. Chicago Underwear Week will round out with events like "Underwear Bike Ride and Skate" and "Underwear Body Painting Day," both slated for next weekend.
"It grabs people's attention, and it makes a statement that women should be able to go top-free in public where men can," Ra said before the trip. "We want to bring that message to the fore visually, but in a way that's safer and less offensive to people than being totally naked."
This is Mann's and Ra's third year organizing Chicago Underwear Week, but their first year trying a train takeover. The pair said they were inspired by Improv Everywhere's yearly "No Pants Subway Ride" and felt they could fold it into their activism.
Mann said that onlookers were "generally pretty supportive" of their events, but taking their exhibitionism to the CTA would be a new challenge.
The plan was to take the Red Line all the way to Jackson, where the group would pause for an "underwear dance party" before hopping on a Blue Line train to Damen and spend the rest of the day at Wicker Park Fest.
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At first when the group stripped on the train, other passengers responded cooly. Some struck up curious conversations, and others subtly took photos on their phones.
But once the train passed Addison and the car filled with fans leaving early from a Cubs blowout loss, some onlookers started to bristle at the stunt. One young woman repeatedly asked Mann, "What are you trying to prove?" and a man yelled out that the activists were "pedophiles" before getting off the train.
Once the group got off at Jackson, they were met by an agent from Action K-9, a private security contractor hired by the CTA, who repeatedly told them they had to "leave the station right now." When the group ignored him, saying they'd already informed the CTA of the event, he followed them through the tunnel to the Blue Line terminal. After they piled onto the next O'Hare-bound train, the agent stood in the doorway to prevent the doors from closing, saying he'd delay the train until they agreed to put their clothes back on.
The underwear crew capitulated and drew their pants back up, and the security agent left them to finish their trip. But minutes after they pulled out of the station, Ra called for them to disrobe again.
Ra said the day ended a success, despite the "one rogue who always tries to ruin it."
For Katie Yamanaka, who had no experience with any kind of exhibitionism before deciding to join the group Sunday, the experience was rewarding for a reason she didn't imagine.
"I joined this because I support gender equality, and this is the kind of thing that really appeals to me," Yamanaka said. "But it felt like saying 'I can wear whatever I want, and I shouldn't have to worry about being harrassed.' It makes us vulnerable, but in the end it's actually really empowering."
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