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Trans Woman Artist vs. Chicago Topless Ordinance


Bea Sullivan-Knopf, a performance artist who uses nudity to confront discomfort with trans bodies, is suing the city of Chicago to overturn an ordinance that bans exposed female breasts in establishments that serve alcohol. 

A 23-year-old queer trans woman and performance artist is suing the city of Chicago and Mayor Rahm Emanuel over the city's ordinance that prohibits women from being topless in establishments that serve alcohol. Bea Sullivan-Knopf and her attorneys are asking a federal court to overturn the statute in a suit filed Wednesday, as Sullivan-Knopf says it harms her ability to pursue her art and make a living as an artist.

Sullivan-Knopf has made a name for herself using poetry, theater, and nudity to challenge norms about gender and sexuality, particularly relating to trans people and their bodies. According to the suit, she has been prevented from performing some of her pieces that involve nudity by certain establishments because they fear the city could take action against their liquor license.

Under Chicago's regulations, any establishment that allows women to expose their breasts risks losing their liquor license. The statute reads, "No person licensed under this chapter shall permit any employee, entertainer or patron to engage in any live act, demonstration, dance or exhibition on the licensed premises which exposes to public view: ... Any portion of the female breast at or below the areola thereof." Men, however, are free to go shirtless without endangering the liquor license.

In a press release following the filing, Sullivan-Knopf's legal team noted, "While men, whether as performers or patrons, in Chicago's hot and humid summers routinely remove clothing from their torsos, whether as artistic expressions or simply to cool off, women are prohibited from doing so due to the threat venues' liquor licenses."

The lawsuit alleges that the Chicago ordinance violates the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, Sullivan-Knopf's freedom of expression as protected under the First Amendment, Illinois state laws that ban discrimination based on sex, and Illinois's human rights law, which bans discrimination based on gender identity.

In the press release, Sullivan-Knopf's attorney, Mary Grieb heavily criticizes the reasoning behind the law, stating:

"In 2016, in a city as diverse as Chicago, there should not be an ordinance reflecting 19th century ideas about sex and gender. Moreover, Ms. Sullivan-Knoff is a 23-year-old engaged in the very difficult task of making a living as a young performance artist, yet has been prevented from performing deeply personal pieces due to the City's transphobic and blatantly sexist ordinance that should be an embarrassment to a modern city in the 21st century."

Trans people have been a sticking point in the increasingly controversial gendered bans on toplessness across the U.S. Because the laws are drawn up with only cisgender people in mind, the line between what constitutes a "female breast" or a "male breast" becomes fairly arbitrary, and this has sparked protest nudity several times over the last few years.

In a press conference held after her attorneys filed the suit, Sullivan-Knopf addressed her reasoning for taking action against the city, saying:

"This ordinance is blatantly sexist in that in that it prohibits female breasts from being revealed in certain public spaces, but it is also inherently transphobic in its antiquated understanding of male and female to begin with. ... At this point the law does not make room for my community to exist in its rich diversity. As a result of this lawsuit, I hope the city of Chicago affords more legal space for trans people to exist on our own terms."

The city of Chicago and Mayor Emanuel's office declined to comment on the suit.

Advocate Magazine - KehlaniAdvocate Magazine - Gus Kenworthy

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