Devon Reid is an Evanston city councilmember who’s trying to create a more inclusive community, and he’s using the Illinois constitution to do it. The queer, Black, 29-year-old points to an amendment in the state constitution that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.
So he’s proposed a change to the lakefront suburb’s public nudity ordinance that would allow anyone to be topless in Evanston, regardless of gender.
Reid didn’t intend to take on the ordinance directly. He was reviewing city codes that may be unconstitutional, and his goal was to amend any that seem inequitable or have the potential to create unnecessary interactions with law enforcement.
“I wasn’t looking for this, in particular,” Reid said. “I was looking for examples that would uphold folks’ bodily autonomy. And this happened to be one that focused on issues of equality.”
The current ordinance prohibits “the showing of male or female genitals, pubic areas or buttocks, or female breast with less than a fully opaque covering of any portion thereof below the top of the nipple” in public places. According to Reid, those who violate the law could be fined up to $750 and charged with a misdemeanor.
Reid asserts the city code as written violates the Illinois Constitution, Article I, Section 18, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. He says Evanston’s ban on the public display of female breasts is an example of how their bodies are governed differently from men’s.
“I don’t see a material difference between a man’s chest and, you know, what is termed in our ordinance as ‘female chest,’ ” Reid said. “Biologically, if you’re going to use that specific language — female breast — the only difference is that female breasts have [functioning] mammary glands. And if we’re scared of mammary glands, then I think we’re worried about the wrong things.”
Reid points out other lakefront suburbs don’t have bans that specifically mention going topless. And he said some states have lifted their prohibitions on toplessness in public.
Just south of Evanston, in Chicago, the city’s Indecent Exposure or Dress Ordinance bars women from being topless in public. An advocate challenged the law in 2014, but it was upheld several years later in a federal appeals court.
Still, there’s a spot at Osterman Beach, also known as Hollywood Beach, on the Far North Side where people feel comfortable showing plenty of skin. It’s known by many as “the gay beach” and is welcoming to the queer community.
On a recent hot summer day, beachgoers there expressed support for Reid’s proposal, even though it wouldn’t apply to all of Chicago.
Ivan Acampo was tanning nude, scrolling through his phone. He described why Hollywood Beach feels so inviting.
“I see quite a few people topless and…no one really cares,” he said. “Everyone just kind of leaves everyone alone and lets people do their own thing.”
Jaime Garcia was sunbathing on a beach towel, explaining he understands public nudity is technically illegal in Chicago — and Evanston for that matter. He thinks it’s a double standard that he can be topless on a beach while others can’t.
“But since I’m male presenting, there’s no issue there.” Garcia said. “I hope Evanston pushes forward and goes with it and hopefully they pass it.”
Dakota Walker said the proposed change could be a benefit to transgender and gender non-conforming people because the current law’s language is ambiguous for some.
“I have some trans friends [who] actually live in Rogers Park, and I go up to [Evanston beaches] with them,” Walker said. “I know they would feel a lot more comfortable going out to the beach if that was something that was allowed.”
Patricia Chavez Foster said if Evanston dropped its topless ban, she believes there should be warnings posted about people being allowed to go topless.
“I think that’s a little challenging, especially if you have children,” she said. “I think there should be something posted so that you would know… what you want to expose your children to.”
Reid said he’s received some backlash, including from a local Evanston news website that ran a story with a headline saying he “wants topless beaches” — something he denies. Reid also said he received harassing messages from some people.
One of his fellow councilmembers, Eleanor Revelle, said at a Human Services Committee meeting in June that there should be public input on Reid’s proposal.
“Before I can support this I want to know what Evanston residents as a whole — what is their understanding of what constitutes nudity?” Revelle said at the time. “I’m not willing to approve this until I know that we’ve got community support.”
Longtime resident Lucia Norris is the founder and former president of the Southeast Evanston Parents Association.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” Norris said. “As a parent, a grandparent and a great grandparent, I would not want small children to be walking around and that’s what they see.”
Reid’s proposal was tabled for the Sept. 6 meeting of the Human Services Committee, of which he’s a member.
While it’s unlikely his idea will be voted on during the waning beach season, it could happen later. Residents in Evanston — and Chicago — will have to wait and see whether it will be legal to go topless in the suburb next summer.
Sonal Soni is an audio news intern. Follow them at @sonal_soni_