Metro Weekly

Chicago City Council relaxing restrictions on topless dancing following trans woman’s lawsuit

City previously agreed to settle a lawsuit objecting to gender-specific restrictions requiring women to cover their breasts

Bea Sullivan-Knoff, trans, topless dancing
Bea Sullivan-Knoff, the plaintiff who challenged the city’s restrictions on topless dancing – Photo: Facebook.

The Chicago City Council is poised to relax restrictions it previously imposed on topless dancing in establishments that sell liquor, following the city’s decision to settle a federal lawsuit from a transgender woman who did not want to be forced to wear “pasties” over her chest.

Under a provision in the city’s current liquor code, women are prohibited from performing topless in any establishment that serves alcohol, and must wear items of clothing, like pasties, that cover part of the breast, including the nipple.

But transgender poet, actress, and performance artist Bea Sullivan-Knoff filed a federal lawsuit in 2016 arguing that the city’s policy was unfair, because male dancers or strippers were allowed to perform topless and had no similar restrictions placed on them.

Specifically, Sullivan-Knoff argued that the provision was discriminatory, unconstitutional, and reinforced “archaic stereotypes” about the “impropriety of women’s breasts” by prohibiting only female entertainers from exposing their breasts in establishments that sell liquor. 

Last December, after years of legal wrangling and significant resistance from the Rahm Emanuel administration, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, only seven months into her term, announced that her administration had agreed to settle the lawsuit and remove all references to gender from the liquor code, at least with respect to how much skin entertainers may show when performing in nightclubs.

The ordinance amending the code, which removes references to gender from the restrictions on topless dancing, was approved by the City Council license Committee on Tuesday.

City lawyer Alexis Long told the aldermen on the Council that the change will apply mainly to performance artists, not strippers. 

See also: Maryland federal judge rules Ocean City’s topless ban is constitutional

Performers in establishments not licensed for adult entertainment will have to prove they aren’t baring flesh for “prurient interests” and would only be allowed to do so once every 30 days, Long said.

Topless-only restaurants will now be allowed to apply for liquor licenses, and strip clubs with existing liquor licenses will no longer be forced to require performers to wear pasties, according to The Chicago Tribune.

But some aldermen have expressed concerns that the city won’t be able to police the change, which they argue will lead to more nudity in bars throughout the city. Ald. Jason Ervin, of the 28th Ward, said the city needs to crack down on illegal toplessness already taking place in some bars.

Other aldermen, particularly those representing more socially conservative or politically liberal-but-highly-affluent wards, have balked at the change, with some claiming that topless dancing will lead to exploitation of women, prostitution, or human trafficking, and others publicly fretting about standards of decency and decorum.

The full Council is scheduled to review and vote on the proposed ordinance next month.

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