The city’s debate over its public nudity ordinance has made national headlines, but this isn’t the first time the Evanston law has been criticized. 

In 2010, the city changed the ordinance after what was then called the Human Relations Commission reviewed a citizen’s complaint about the Evanston Police Department.

The complaint concerned the arrest of a man who made comments and gestures to three police officers at 6:45 a.m. on Lake Street, the Evanston RoundTable reported in April 2010. As the man was being handcuffed by police, his pants fell down – exposing his genitals and buttocks to the officers.

Police cited the man for public nudity but the charge was later dropped when the officer who wrote the citation didn’t appear in court. 

Former Second Ward Council Member Lionel Jean-Baptiste said during a 2010 commission meeting that police abused the public nudity law to make a charge stick. 

Jean-Baptiste’s concerns over the interaction led to the committee defining “nudity” to prevent officers from applying the ordinance at their discretion.

The city defines nudity as “showing of the human male or female genitals, pubic areas or buttocks or female breast with less than a fully opaque covering … below the top of the nipple.”

Today, Council Member Devon Reid (8th Ward) is urging the city to update that definition. He argues that the ordinance is unconstitutional and excludes nonbinary, transgender, intersex or gender-fluid people.

The ordinance refers only to male and female and doesn’t mention intersex individuals, people who are born with both male and female sex characteristics. The ordinance also doesn’t include people whose sex at birth differs from their gender or gender identity.

Experts say sex and gender are not synonymous. They say biological sex is often understood to be based on genitals and chromosomes, whereas gender is usually considered more of a social construct that blends roles, behaviors and societal norms. 

“Gender is a bit more of a self-concept, whereas sex is oftentimes associated to phenotypical – what is showing up both outside of your body but also internally in your body,” said Matthew Abtahi, assistant director of Northwestern University’s Multicultural Student Affairs.

Abtahi is a leader on LGBTQIA+ student support services at Northwestern. After reading the city’s public nudity ordinance, he said it was limiting because it’s binary based. But he thinks naming the specific body parts in the ordinance provided clarity on what is considered public nudity.

“I don’t know if there’s a necessity to then be associating it with sex assigned at birth, because your sex assigned at birth doesn’t necessarily determine the body parts you always have,” Abtahi said. “Every human has different hormones and different proteins, creating different ways in which the physical manifestation of your body then shows up.”

Medical doctor and psychiatry resident at the University of Pennsylvania Dr. Teddy G. Goetz agrees.

Breasts and nipples can look and function similarly no matter the gender of the person, Goetz said.

“What is a female nipple?” Goetz asked. “Nipples are nipples, and the idea of having a law or ordinance specifying certain things are not allowed for female breast tissue or female nipples. It doesn’t mean anything … Therefore, my question then becomes about the impact of enforcement on the transgender and nonbinary community.”

Goetz was raised in Evanston and received an M.D. from Columbia University and has a background in biochemistry and gender studies from Yale University.

Abtahi also expressed concern about how this ordinance will be enforced. Trans people experience disproportionate violence at the hands of police and community members, Abtahi said.

“Because there’s a specificity around female breasts, I think there immediately is going to be assumption-making around who is or isn’t a female,” Abtahi said.

Evanston modeled its definition on Morton Grove’s public indecency ordinance, but several surrounding cities – including Skokie, Wilmette, Winnetka, Glencoe, Lake Forest and Kenilworth, as well as the state of Illinois – have the same definitions of nudity for all people, no matter their gender.

The debate about the city’s public nudity ordinance has recently popped up in the Human Services Committee and the Parks and Recreation Board. The Human Services Committee passed the discussion off to the Equity and Empowerment Commission to review the possible equity issue.

The commission widely supported Reid’s recommendation to update the nudity ordinance to reflect the gender-neutral state law and surrounding city ordinances. The commission submitted a memo to the Human Service Committee outlining its support for Reid’s proposal.

The Human Service Committee will vote on whether to update the city’s ordinance or not at its next monthly meeting, which is Nov. 7, since its October meeting was canceled. The City Council will make the final decision.

Comparing nearby communities

The state law for public indecency also says “breastfeeding of infants is not an act of public indecency,” a statement that is gender-neutral. Evanston’s ordinance currently exempts “women breastfeeding,” but women aren’t the only people who breastfeed, Goetz said.

The nudity or public indecency ordinances for cities surrounding Evanston avoid prohibiting female breasts and nipples. The ordinances in Skokie and Lake Forest follow the state law closely and rely on it if the instance of nudity is lewd and intended for sexual arousal.

Kenilworth’s ordinance explains that people aren’t allowed to be in public if they are “not properly and decently clothed.” The city also says no person in a “state of nudity” can be at the parks, beaches or in the water. 

The ordinances for Winnetka and Wilmette are vague but don’t regulate nudity for one gender more than another. 

Glencoe uses his or her pronouns to describe its residents but its ordinance doesn’t prohibit exclusively female breasts or nipples. 

“I’m going to turn to our neighbors, Skokie, Wilmette, Winnetka, Glencoe, Kenilworth, Lake Forest,” Reid said in reference to which cities to model a nudity ordinance. “They do not have gendered language, and those are some of the nicest communities in America.”

It’s a misconception that removing the gendered language in the city’s nudity ordinance will make the beaches topless, Reid said.

One of the reasons Reid recommended updating the nudity ordiance was to prevent trans, nonbinary and people of color from having unnecessary interactions with police. 

“The goal of it, ultimately, was to reduce the opportunity for negative interaction with law enforcement to make sure that we were, as a municipality, avoiding the potential for costly litigation and also upholding our values of gender and racial equality and equity,” Reid said.

‘Potential for costly litigation’

The Human Services Committee consulted the city’s law department about potential lawsuits over the ordinance. The law department said the ordinance isn’t a violation of the Illinois Constitution. The city hasn’t been sued over its current nudity ordinance, according to City Attorney Nicholas Cummings.

But in Chicago, the the city paid a trans woman $25,000 in 2020 after she sued over its nudity ordinance. Chicago’s nudity ordinance is similar to Evanston’s.

In her lawsuit, Bea Sullivan-Knoff, an actress and Northwestern University graduate, questioned the meaning of “female breasts” when applied to transgender people. She also argued against laws based on the gender binary. 

As a result of the lawsuit, Chicago now allows bars and clubs with liquor licenses to permit fully topless performances.

Another city also decided to loosen its public nudity ordinance after litigation. Fort Collins, Colo., joined Boulder and Denver in removing gendered language from its public nudity ordinance in 2019. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Fort Collins ruled that the ordinance was unconstitutional after the town spent more than $300,000 in court defending the law.

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. Devon Reid gets a lot of criticism and some of it is deserved, but in this case, I think he’s absolutely right. This seems like a very easy change to make that will have little impact on the community and will protect us from needless litigation. If you think people are going to start showing up topless in droves at the beaches (as some have all edged), I think you’re going to be disappointed.