Transgender artist Bea Sullivan-Knoff wanted to perform topless at a venue that served alcohol two years ago. But she couldn’t because of a city law prohibiting topless female dancers in places where booze is present.
The slated performance, she says, was one of her favorites: She wears a brown paper bag over her head that says “touch me” on all four sides. She’s then led to the center of the room by a friend as she dons a sheet draped over her body, and then she drops the sheet, exposing her naked body.
“I wanted to explore … the objectification of trans bodies, especially when you look at how trans people interact with the legal system,” said Sullivan-Knoff, who performs under the name Bea Cordelia, on WBEZ’s Morning Shift. “It’s a constant, just, subjecting yourself to a lot of really interrogative questions and having to explain and justify yourself to a lot of different people.”
So in 2016, Sullivan-Knoff sued the city of Chicago, claiming that the law stopping her from showing her breasts is discriminatory. The suit comes at a time when a growing movement, dubbed “Free the Nipple,” questions why women can’t be topless in public places while men can take off their shirts.
A federal judge last month ruled her lawsuit can proceed. A spokesman for the city’s law department did not immediately return a call for comment on the suit or the city’s law.
Here are some takeaways from Sullivan-Knoff’s interview with Morning Shift host Tony Sarabia.
The city’s topless law
Bea Sullivan-Knoff: It’s very sexist. And it just comes from this understanding that men will do what men will do, so we have to cover up women in order to protect them.
Tony Sarabia: Is there an assumption that men will do what men will do when once they have some drinks in their system?
Sullivan-Knoff: Right, and if [there’s a] combination of alcohol and nudity, they’ll go off on their own train and we can’t do anything about it. Instead of putting a legal focus on the men and how can we can create an ordinance that will keep men in check, who might be in a situation where they could commit some kind of violent act or something, we’re instead just putting all of that impetuous on women, which is familiar and kind of tired at this point.
Defining the female body
Sullivan-Knoff: My specific issue with the [city’s topless] ordinance is not only this kind of blatantly sexist aspect on its face. But also that it fails to define the term “female” to begin with.
Because when you start to bring trans bodies into the question, legally speaking, we start to rupture a lot of our underlying assumptions about gender and bodies. And if you’re going to call something a female breast, that might sound, like, “Oh sure, I know what that means.”
But, you know, when you have trans men who are legally male but might not have had top surgery, who still have breast tissue and what people in society would consider to be breasts were they to take off their shirt in a bar, I feel like that would still be violation of the same ordinance even though they’re legally male.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire conversation, which was produced by Morning Shift producer Daniel Tucker.