A production still from performance artist Bea Cordelia’s The Cosmic Body Credit: Matthew Gregory Hollis

At most any nightclub packed wall to wall, teeming with body heat, it’s not out of the ordinary for a few patrons to dance or lounge around shirtless—that is, if you’re a man.

It’s even more commonplace in Boystown bars, where male bartenders (and dancers) sometimes do their duties in their skivvies. But if a woman in the same profession in Chicago ever did the same, without covering up her breasts, the business would risk losing its liquor license. She might even face financial penalty or arrest under Chicago’s municipal code.

One local performance artist hopes to change that. If she wins out in court, those restrictions may loosen up considerably. I hope she’s successful. As many feminists, films, and the #FreeTheNipple campaign have noted, ordinances like these reinforce gender inequality by categorizing a woman’s breasts as sexual objects. The city should change its ordinance to allow patrons and performance artists of all genders to bare their chests, should they so choose, in venues that serve liquor.

Bea Sullivan-Knoff, known to audiences as Bea Cordelia, filed suit in federal court last month against the city and Mayor Rahm Emanuel to challenge an ordinance that prohibits women from exposing “any portion of the female breast at or below the areola.” As her suit notes, on various occasions for several months, Sullivan-Knoff’s artistic performances with above-the-waist nudity were restricted or altered because venues didn’t want to risk losing their liquor licenses.

But there’s another important layer to Sullivan-Knoff’s suit, which she highlighted in an interview with the Reader last week. Sullivan-Knoff, a queer, transgender woman, points out that the ordinance also places transgender and gender non-conforming people in a precarious position—one that’s been reinforced by the relentless national debate about trans people using bathrooms, locker rooms, and other gendered public accommodations.

“They don’t define what ‘female’ [breast] means,” Sullivan-Knoff says of Chicago’s law. “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.”

Sullivan-Knoff, a Chicago native, often uses interactive performances to explore issues of trans identity and her relationship with her body. Some of her performances incorporate breast exposure forbidden by the city’s rules.

In one such piece, developed through a residency at the University of Chicago’s Performance Lab, Sullivan-Knoff creates an immersive, multimedia experience that documents a six-day camping trip she took to Michigan’s upper peninsula with her father. “The Cosmic Body” incorporates five screens with projections of outdoor scenery, 30 minutes of pre-recorded poetry, candles, blankets, and a tent with childhood photos inside.

Sullivan-Knoff frequently camped in Michigan with her church group as a child, but stopped after first coming out eight years ago. The experience was intended to facilitate healing and reconciliation with her past self. As part of the performance, Sullivan-Knoff performs a poem called “Shower,” which recounts the first shower she took after spending days outdoors. On stage, she turns away from the audience, disrobes, and ritualistically pours a bowl of water on herself.

“Even though I was indoors in someone else’s bathroom, I had a moment to just exhale,” she says. “Hopefully [the piece] will encourage [people] to take those moments with themselves. . . in an empowering, self-love sort of way.”

Meanwhile, the “blatantly discriminatory” ordinance hampers the artistic integrity and the message of her work, Sullivan-Knoff says, by preventing her from incorporating such moments into her performances.

This isn’t the first legal challenge to Chicago ordinances that censure the exposure of a woman’s chest. (Although Illinois is one of nearly three dozen states with looser restrictions on women being topless in public, it doesn’t stop municipalities from imposing their own standards.) A November 2014 lawsuit filed by Sonoko Tagami challenged Chicago’s public nudity ordinance after police handed her a $100 ticket while participating in that year’s Go Topless Day (link NSFW).

Earlier this year, a U.S. District Court granted the city’s motion to dismiss Tagami’s suit, finding that its freedom of speech and equal protection claims weren’t sufficiently supported. In one portion of its ruling, the court said public nudity isn’t “inherently expressive,” and despite any remarks that accompanied the display, Tagami hadn’t demonstrated a high likelihood that the message would be understood by those who viewed it.

(Now, I’m not the one wearing a black robe here. But I find it hard to believe that a bunch of chanting activists carrying bullhorns and signs emblazoned with slogans about booby politics—as is typical of a Go Topless demonstration—wouldn’t somehow send a clear signal that, “This is an act of protest related to the propriety of women’s breasts.”)

Before someone cues up Mrs. Lovejoy’s “Won’t somebody please think of the children,” it’s worth noting that, yes, many public nudity ordinances were designed to protect children—and, yes, even adults—from exposure that could cross boundaries of consent. That protection isn’t being challenged by the lawsuit, nor would it go away if the liquor license ordinance changes.

Yet the way the city defended its public nudity ordinance is highly indicative of prevailing attitudes about female bodies. As the Chicago Tribune reported last year, the city’s lawyers also argued that “female breasts are considered erogenous in a way that male breasts are not.”

Erogenous to whom? Because if you ask most anyone attracted to men, the exposure of so-called male breasts might make you feel. . . some type of way.

But because sexuality and desire have long been defined and legally regulated from the perspective of those in power—specifically cisgender, heterosexual males—society has operated under the assumption that formed this part of the city’s defense. It’s another example of how the patriarchy attempts to control, undermine, or violate the agency women have over their own bodies.

Still, local women’s advocacy groups and some aldermen opposed efforts to change the ordinance when the possibility was raised in May. There’s a long-standing fear that liquor, combined with nudity, would greatly increase the potential for sexual violence and exploitation for women in Chicago’s few strip clubs. A recent Tribune report noted that the firm working with Sullivan-Knoff, Shiller Preyar Law Offices, has also represented VIP’s Gentlemen’s Club, which has been in a long back-and-forth with the city over the same ordinance. (Mary Greib, an attorney at Shiller Preyar, says that although her office represented VIP’s in the past, it doesn’t currently represent the club, and that VIP’s has nothing to do with Sullivan-Knoff’s lawsuit.)

But when toxic masculinity gives way to assaults in strip clubs, it’s not the alcohol or the breasts that caused the problem—it’s the person who committed the an act of violence (and, in some cases, negligent business owners).

The long game, Sullivan-Knoff says, is a shift in representation of what healthy expressions of gender look like. In the short term, she notes, that would include a shift from regulating “female breasts” to closely examining and legally sanctioning the business practices and customer behaviors that cause harm to performers.

At the very least, the city’s municipal code could make room for artistic nudity in venues with liquor licenses, as well as language that affirms the individual agency of patrons of all genders to bare their chests if they choose. Performances like Sullivan-Knoff’s occur within venues where customers, more likely than not, get carded before entry and usually arrive knowing what to expect. And as a young performance artist in a major city, her avenues of artistic expression and economic opportunity shouldn’t be limited to art galleries and other venues that may not serve liquor.

In a city that already polices so much, it’s time to move the crosshairs away from the nipple.   v