A transgender woman is headed to court to take on Chicago’s topless ban after a federal judge greenlit her lawsuit earlier this month.
Bea Sullivan-Knoff, a performance artist, says Chicago’s ordinance that bans people from exposing their breasts in establishments with liquor licenses is vague and discriminatory against women.
Specifically, the ordinance prohibits the exhibition of “any portion of the female breast at or below the areola thereof.”
Sullivan-Knoff says the ordinance has significantly limited her ability to perform in places that serve alcohol, including certain theatres. She has performed topless at other venues in the city that don’t have liquor licenses.
“Since my body and trans bodies in general are so often just the site of so much invasive introspection and legislation and violence, it felt really good to be able to find empowerment in physically embodying that level of vulnerability on stage,” said Sullivan-Knoff. “It was something that was always really impactful for my audiences as well.”
Sullivan-Knoff’s complaint, filed in 2016, hinges on the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution, the First Amendment, the Illinois Constitution and the Illinois Human Rights Act. She argues that the state arbitrarily differentiates between male and female breasts and that it’s unclear how the law applies to her as trans person.
“I imagine the hypothetical situation in which I ignore the ordinance and go ahead and do a performance that involves toplessness at a venue with a liquor license,” she said. “Should I be arrested for that, the irony is that statistically, I would most likely be put in a men’s jail or prison.”
The City of Chicago filed a motion to dismiss the suit. On Nov. 12, Northern District Court Judge Andrea Wood ruled that the suit could move forward.
Wood points out that the ordinance doesn’t clarify how the policy impacts trans men and women, both of whom might be impacted by the policy.
“Nevertheless, the relevant difference here concerning the heightened sexual nature of female breasts might just be a product of society’s sexual objectification of women,” she wrote. “At a minimum, these questions pose serious concerns in the abstract, as nothing in the text of the Ordinance provides a clear answer.”
A spokesperson for the City of Chicago did not respond to a request to comment.
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