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The Equity and Empowerment Commission showed support for updating the city public nudity ordinance on Thursday. 

Credit: Photo by Francois Olwage on Unsplash

City officials have been debating removing language from the city code “Public Nudity; Urinating or Defecating in Public” that requires females to cover their breasts and nipples.

The move to change the ordinance has made headlines and continues to do so as it winds its way through a longer-than-usual legislative process. Eighth Ward City Council member Devon Reid is a driving force to update the ordinance. He argues that requiring women but not men to cover their nipples is sexist.

This past week, the issue landed at the Equity and Empowerment Commission, which discussed the gender equity aspect of the ordinance and pushed back on conventional ideas. The commission’s purpose is to remove inequities in all city practices, programs and services.

Path of the city discussion

The discussions began in August with the Parks and Recreation Board.

“The fact that this language specifically says female breast is problematic,” Reid said during Thursday’s Equity and Empowerment Commission meeting.

The Human Services Committee took over the conversation last week. It consulted the city’s law department to see if the city could be sued for discrimination over the ordinance. The law department assured the committee that the ordinance doesn’t violate the Illinois Constitution and that the city would be able to defend the ordinance, explained City Attorney Nicholas Cummings in a memo

If the city decides to remove language prohibiting the exposure of women’s nipples, Cummings recommended that the city add limitations of sexual and lewd behavior to the ordinance.

The Human Services Committee then passed the discussion to the Equity and Empowerment Commission. The commission didn’t vote on whether to change the ordinance, as was reported elsewhere. Instead, the commission discussed their concerns with the ordinance’s current language and unanimously supported removing the restriction on women’s nipples.

Commission chair Karla Thomas stated that she will draft a memo showing the commission’s reasons for supporting updating the ordinance and share it with the Human Resources Committee.

Thomas supported removing the restriction on female nipples and breasts. The ordinance isn’t only unfair to women but also to nonbinary and transgender people, she said.

Thomas, who has a nonbinary child, worries that nonbinary and trans people are at risk of being policed and have their gender identies questioned if they choose to be topless.

“Who decides that they want to walk up to a person without a shirt, and tell them, whether they’re male or female?” Thomas asked. “What are we checking pants here?”

This ordinance could prompt law enforcement and residents to question topless individual’s gender in the binary sense rather than nonbinary, Thomas said.

“I see a huge equity issue,” Thomas said.

Gina Castro

Gina Castro is a Racial Justice fellow for the Evanston RoundTable. She recently earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism where she studied investigative...

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  1. I think I have the solution: require that everyone cover their nipples whether male, female, or non-binary. A lot of us can admit, we don’t really like seeing most guys without shirts anyway. Plus, that means less skin cancer. Boom: solved.

  2. A City Commission encouraged indeed spurred into action by the redoubtable Eight Ward’s Devon Reid has concluded that we have another “huge equity issue” here in our city: requiring women but not men to cover their nipples. Huge issue. It is not clear whether this august Commission and Mr. Reid are talking about beaches, shopping centers, or anywhere outside or inside. In a time of great tumult, here in our bubble public officials have the talent and time to focus on this critical equity issue. Schools, violence, business development, homelessness can wait. Let’s spend our time tackling this huge equity issue. My. My. Aren’t we fortunate. We can all sleep more soundly at night.

  3. I think that some members of our community are not thinking things through on the outcome of removing language from an ordinance that “requires females to cover their breasts and nipples.”

    A lot of summer camps take kids to our beaches as part of their weekly activities and many parents of those kids do not want them to be seeing bare breasts while there. How will that issue be dealt with?

    In schools when they teach Erin’s Law regarding sexual abuse, they describe private parts as the parts we cover with a bathing suit. If females here no longer have to cover their breasts, are they no longer considered a private part of young girls that is not to be touched by others?

    If the city adds the “limitations of sexual and lewd behavior” to the ordinance, who is to be the judge of that? I read the weekly crime bulletins and have yet to see any arrests on our beaches, let alone due to someone baring their breasts. If we make these changes we could start seeing issues arise. For instance, someone sees a topless female on the beach behaving in what they feel is lewd or sexual, then calls the police, the police come to deal with it, the female denies behaving that way and who knows what happens next?

    In regard to comments I’ve heard such as “Children are breast fed and are used to seeing breasts all the time”, many children are not used to seeing breasts. In regard to comments such as women should not have to be ashamed of their breasts and have to cover them”, they are not covered out of shame. We cover them because they are special and only need to be seen by someone special to us. In regard to the comment, “Breasts are not a sexual organ”, any mature female with feeling in their breasts can tell you otherwise.

    One could say this is to benefit trans and non-binary people, but the bottom line is that this is opening a big door that invites many issues.
    Since we haven’t had any issues the way the ordinance is written and it complies with the Illinois Constitution, we should leave it as is, or at least put it on the ballot in November and let Evanston residents vote on it.

  4. Sometimes it’s best to just not have an ordnance, which might apply in this situation…

    ..remembering my feeling when I read that an Iranian or was it a woman in Afghanistan that died after having allegedly been beaten to death by the morality police for having some of the hair on her head showing.

  5. thank you Gina for your even reporting. Thank you Karla Thomas and Devon Reid for working towards ending oppression of bodies that are not cis male.

  6. Can anyone share how many complaints the city has received – from those identifying as female – that they are prohibited from being bare breasted in public?

  7. A silly waste of everyone’s time. How about figure out why downtown Evanston is a shell of it’s former self, to name only 1 of the many pressing issues in our town that continue to be a problem.

  8. This issue is not huge. This is so unnecessary. Has there been even one actual issue? Potential for policing problem? How disrespectful to police and police management.

    1. Bingo.

      Citizen: Why’d you become a police officer?

      Officer: To enforce municipal ordinances against bare breasts on the beach. It’s always been my dream. Forget catching robbers, murderers, and rapists…I want to give out local citations and argue with people over how they identity themselves and whether my citations apply to them or not.