During his 12 years working for Christian Youth Theater, Rockford man Andrew Mahan said he became an ally for students who didn’t always feel they fit in.
“I had countless students constantly sending me emails and messages saying: ‘Hey, I am gay, or I am trans or this or that. I always feel safe around you when I do shows. I always audition for shows because I know you’re on staff and I feel safer with you,’” said Mahan.
That ended in 2018 when, he said, CYT Chicago leaders gave him two options: resign or have his employment terminated.
From what Mahan was told, the parent of a student at CYT Rockford, a chapter of CYT Chicago, discovered a poster of a Rockford drag show that had his picture on it and notified a company area coordinator.
“One of the board members spoke to me and she said, ‘You know we are a Christian company and you know our standpoint on homosexuality, and the board is moving for your removal,’ ” said Mahan, a gay man. “I decided to bow out quietly.”
He said CYT Chicago drafted a statement to staff members saying he left the company for work opportunities in Chicago — a statement he flatly denies.
“They crafted a very beautiful lie as to why I was leaving the company,” Mahan said. “None of the staff that I’ve worked with closely for years who knew the actual reason spoke up — it was completely swept under the rug.”
CYT Chicago and Rockford officials did not return requests for comment.
Mahan kept the reason for his departure secret until earlier this month, when went public in the wake of a new CYT Chicago policy toward LGBTQ+ students and staff, and hearing from former students he mentored.
A new contract from the Cary-based company aligned itself with “traditional beliefs of God, the Bible, sexuality, marriage, human identity and gender” and ordered, “Speech and behavior of students, parents and staff must comply with a biblical standard, at least while on site and for the duration of the CYT Chicago programs in which these families and students are participating.”
Mahon responded with a lengthy, passionate Facebook post criticizing the contract and breaking his silence about his exit.
“If a company is going to proclaim themselves Christian, which by definition means striving to be Christ-like, then love should be the first and foremost goal of the company in all things, period,” Mahan said in an interview. “And when I read the contract, the statement that they ended the contract with was ‘In his Sufficient Grace.’ I found it humorous and offensive that they would [use those words to] end a contract that is pretty blatantly unaccepting and a bit hateful toward groups and individuals.
“For a company that calls itself Christian to put that phrase after hate-mongering in a contract, I found that very, very, very telling of this company’s mentality. … I couldn’t stay quiet.”
Mahan worked for CYT Chicago and Rockford from 2007-2018, holding various roles for over 20 productions, including choreographer, costume designer, teacher, camp director, and — perhaps the most important job, he says — mentor.
Looking back at his time with CYT Chicago and Rockford, he says the theater company became less and less of a place for teens who don’t fit societal norms.
“When I joined the company it did not function as a ‘church’ theater company. It was not pushed on people the idea of faith and religion, or that you had to be a Christian,” said Mahan. “There was an unspoken unsettling tone when I started working there as an openly gay male. I knew I would have to be [careful] just because not all Christian and religious people are comfortable with the idea of homosexuality.
“During some of those staff meetings for camps or for shows, the conversation would turn to: ‘This student just came out.’ There was always that assumption of predatory behavior with those kinds of students and staff when it got out that a staff member was gay.”
These days, Mahan is running his own theater company in Rockford with his mother, Ellen, also a former CYT Chicago and Rockford employee, named Gateway Arts, which has the mission statement: “At Gateway, we see you. And we meet you where you are.”
“We’ve been going strong,” said Mahan, Gateway Arts’ artistic director. “After we both left, a lot of students left CYT and actually joined our theater company just because they didn’t feel accepted.”