At least two employees of a Christian-oriented suburban theater company have resigned in recent weeks, citing its policy toward LGBTQ+ students.
The exits from Cary-based Christian Youth Theater Chicago, which offers workshops and puts on shows starring students ages 6-18, were prompted by a document issued by CYT Chicago’s board aligning itself with “traditional beliefs of God, the Bible, sexuality, marriage, human identity and gender.”
The statement 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.”
Employees are required to sign the statements to work at CYT Chicago this fall.
CYT Chicago staffers Will Higgins, a director, and Sophie Murk, an assistant director and overnight camp director, responded by leaving the company and creating CYT For All, an Instagram page that quickly picked up more than 600 followers.
“Sadly, CYT is requiring staff to adhere to a set of policies that do not reflect the diversity of their community,” an FAQ on the page says. “We are not asking them to agree with us, but we are asking them to allow us to exist with them.”
About 80 teachers, directors and volunteers — some involved with CYT since they were young kids or teens — also have pledged to resign, Higgins said.
He said in an interview that he had enjoyed training and later working with CYT because it was a non-denominational, non-ecumenical space for Christians and open to differing viewpoints.
“There was always this underlying notion that CYT wasn’t very kind to its queer employees — or its queer-affirming Christian employees,” Higgins said. “But [until now] they had never officially made it any part of their requirements for staff to believe a certain doctrine to be able to teach there or to just exist within the organization in general.”
An email to CYT Chicago staff from its board said the company continues to welcome students “regardless of different views, race [or] sexual orientation or identity.”
But the accompanying CYT Chicago statement discourages any discussion of “human identity, gender identity, and sexual identity” during its activities, which it says should be left to parents and pastors. And it says students, parents and staff should avoid “dress, t-shirt logos, flirtation and expressions of affection” that clash with its principles.
To Sydney Rovik, who worked for a decade with CYT Chicago as a dance teacher and in other roles, that smacks of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
“I don’t want to put words in their mouths, but it does read like: ‘Promise us that you won’t talk about it. Promise us that when you are working for us, you will avoid those conversations and sign the statement saying that you believe these things and if you don’t, well then don’t tell us.’ That’s how it reads,” said Rovik, who left CYT in 2020. “[The statement] lacks integrity. It provides too many opportunities for dishonesty and a lack of safety for the students.”
On its Instagram page, the new group CYT For All said many staffers “have been trying to advocate for the queer community from within CYT for a long time. It was important for us to be affirming voices for the students that needed that love and acceptance. Unfortunately this new policy removes that opportunity to advocate and affirm in an effective way.”
CYT Chicago leaders declined to answer questions about how the new policy was formed or how it will work in practice.
In a statement, board chairman Kevin L. Iler said:
“Like any organization, we periodically revise or update policies and procedures for our employees and team members. We are encouraged that throughout our history, our policies have been highly regarded and regularly applauded by CYT’s participating parents because they demonstrate our care for the well-being of their children. … Reliance on Biblical values is key to CYT in all we do. We take heart that the United States Supreme Court has seen fit to repeatedly uphold the right of religious institutions to act according to their deeply and sincerely held religious beliefs.”
CYT Chicago is offering day camps this summer at churches in multiple suburban locations as well as Kenosha, Rockford and Milwaukee, and it is planning eight productions this fall of musicals including “High School Musical” and “Newsies.”
It is one of 28 U.S. branches spun off from the original CYT in San Diego, which has suspended operations while investigating allegations of sexual misconduct made last summer on social media.
Hannah Evans, who was involved with CYT Chicago from ages 8 to 18, said she remembers it as a safe place for outcast theater kids.
“CYT is a crucially important space for those kids, and that’s why that statement is so devastating,” she said. “Because, for those kids, this is one of the only places where they get to be fully themselves and develop identities, and all these important things that kids do.”
Higgins said last year, he and Murk collected signatures from staff members on a petition encouraging CYT Chicago “to be more welcoming and kind to the queer-affirming Christians that were in its organization, and included some ways we think they could do that.” He said they also met with CYT board members. (Iler would not confirm they met.)
“To be completely honest, I never felt like I was taken seriously,” said Higgins. “I don’t know if it was that they are really, really stubborn in their beliefs, or if it was because I was a child that grew up in the organization and they wrote me off as inexperienced — or young — and didn’t value the new perspective I was bringing, especially one that related more toward the students they were trying to create a space for.”
Contributing: Darel Jevens