A transgender woman in Chicago named Bea Sullivan-Knoff is suing the city because it won’t permit a performance in which Sullivan-Knoff, 26, would perform nude in places that serve liquor.
Sullivan-Knoff believes that the fact that men can go bare-chested but women cannot is an imposition, but it’s more than that; Sullivan-Knoff also wants to challenge how “female breasts” should be defined when one is transgender and if laws based on binary gender should be applied to gender-non-conforming people. She said in 2016, “They don’t define what ‘female’ [breast] means. As soon as you look at anyone in the trans or intersex community, it can throw a wrench in a seemingly straightforward and simple statement. . . If a trans woman has undergone hormone replacement therapy, and hasn’t done documentation to change [legal] gender, then is it a male breast? I don’t think they have had to consider it before.”
The Washington Post writes, “For example, she questioned, would police enforce the ordinance against a transgender woman who is legally female but whose breasts are biologically male? What about against a transgender man who is legally male but whose breasts have yet to be surgically reduced? Are those breasts still ‘female’ in the eyes of authorities?”
Sullivan-Knoff had performed nude, claiming the performance was an attempt to elicit the audience to “objectify the body,” telling the Post, “There was something empowering about being able to do that and being fine at the end of it.” Sullivan-Knoff was told in 2016 that the nude performance was banned by a Chicago ordinance.
The ordinance states, “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: His or her genitals, pubic hair, buttocks, perineum and anal region or pubic hair region; or any device, costume or covering which gives the appearance of or simulates the genitals, pubic hair, buttocks, perineum, anal region or pubic hair region; or any portion of the female breast at or below the areola thereof.”
Sullivan-Knoff agreed to change the performance, then sued the city of Chicago in federal court.
On November 12, U.S. District Judge Andrea R. Wood, ruling against the city’s motion to dismiss the case, stated, “At minimum, these questions pose serious concerns in the abstract, as nothing in the text of the Ordinance provides a clear answer.” Wood dismissed the city’s claim that female breasts had different strictures than male breasts because they “create a sexual environment,” and stated, “The heightened sexual nature of female breasts might just be a product of society’s sexual objectification of women.” Wood said the ordinance violated the Constitution’s equal protection guarantee, that when it was used with regard to transgender people it was unconstitutionally vague.
Sullivan-Knoff claimed, “Stating ‘female’ and assuming we can all understand whether that applies to us doesn’t work when you start to look at trans and intersex folks. You can find so many different kinds of bodies tied to those two gender markers. The diversity gets lost when you just say it’s either an ‘F’ or an ‘M.’ ”
As the Post notes, “In 2010, police in Rehoboth Beach, Del., told WBOC News that they weren’t exactly sure how to apply a law banning female breast exposure to a group of transgender women, some who had not fully transitioned, who were sunbathing topless. They ultimately decided not to enforce it because they said the women had male genitalia.”
Nan Hunter, a law professor at Georgetown University and scholar at UCLA’s Williams Institute on sexual orientation and gender identity law, said, “The trans movement is forcing institutions across society to question the extent to which gender categories are necessary or even useful.”