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Transgender performer sues city; says topless ban ruining her act

Bea Sullivan-Knoff, a performance artist, is suing the city of Chicago over rules prohibiting women from going topless in bars and restaurants. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Chicago was accused Wednesday of violating the U.S. Constitution and reinforcing “archaic stereotypes” about the “impropriety of women’s breast” by prohibiting only women from exposing their breasts in establishments licensed to sell liquor.

Bea Sullivan-Knoff, a self-described “queer, transgender woman and performance artist,” filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to overturn the ordinance last amended in September 2013 that prohibits liquor license holders from allowing female employees, entertainers or patrons to expose their breasts without imposing the same restriction on men.

The ordinance specifically prohibits bars and restaurants from allowing women to “engage in any live act, demonstration dance or exhibition” that exposes to public view “any portion of the female breast at or below the areola.”

At a news conference Wednesday outside Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office, Sullivan-Knoff and her attorney described the restriction as an “embarrassment” to a modern American city.

“The law as it currently stands is sexist and transphobic. It only allows people who have a certain body type to be able to perform in a certain way. And it prohibits people of other body types to be able to do the exact same thing,” said Sullivan-Knoff, 23.

“I have been unable to perform at venues that I have wanted to with the performances that I have wanted to perform.”

Asked why going topless is so important to her performance, Sullivan-Knoff said it’s a matter of achieving full equality.

“As a trans woman, I have a lot of people and larger systems and forces at play all of the time telling me that my body is wrong or that it needs a lot of proof to allow my body to exist as it does. For me to be able to reclaim my own empowerment on a stage is no small matter,” she said.

Mary Grieb, an attorney representing Sullivan-Knoff, said the ordinance is a product of “19th century standards on protecting women and needing to keep women safe.”

“Bearing the female breast used to be viewed as risque. It is no longer viewed as risque when men are allowed to do the same thing. . . . There’s no reason that men can be topless in an establishment and women can’t,” said Grieb, whose partner is Brendan Shiller, son of former independent Ald. Helen Shiller (46th).

Brendan Shiller also represents VIP’s A Gentleman’s Club, a strip club that has pushed for the city to relax rules about how much skin can be exposed in clubs where liquor is sold.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday claims the city’s ordinance “intentionally and arbitrarily targets women and transgender individuals [who] identify as women while placing no such restriction on men in establishments that sell liquor and/or alcoholic beverages.”

It argues that there is “no important government interest for the difference in treatment” that only “reinforces archaic stereotypes and overbroad generalizations of the impropriety of women’s breasts versus men’s breasts, which also have areola.”

In addition to overturning the ordinance, the suit seeks compensatory and punitive damages for Sullivan-Knoff for the damage caused by making it difficult for her to make a living as a “young performing artist” whose act depends on being bare-breasted.

Law Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey refused to comment on the pending lawsuit.

Sullivan-Knoff seeks “to reclaim her body in the face of legislation and discrimination directed against transgender bodies, to make herself vulnerable and to create an impactful experience for the audience,” the lawsuit states.

In at least one of her “performance pieces,” a 5 minute timer is set on stage and Sullivan-Knoff appears “with her body wrapped in a sheet and her head covered by a brown paper bag, which has `Touch Me’ written on all four sides,” the lawsuit states.

The audience is invited to “touch plaintiff’s body.” When the timer runs out, Sullivan-Knoff “removes the paper bag.”

The last time there was a discussion of “areolas” at City Hall, the chairman of the City Council’s License Committee was pulling the plug on her own strip club ordinance for the second time in a month. Only this time, Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) said it was for good.

At the time, women’s groups contended that the more parts of the female anatomy that are exposed at Chicago strip clubs, the greater the danger that women will be exploited, abused and sexually assaulted.