Cirque du Soleil defends prohibition of HIV-positive performers
December 18 2003 1:00 AM ET
In response to an investigation by the the San Francisco Human Rights Commission into unlawful discrimination against people with HIV, Cirque du Soleil sent a letter to the city stating that the company would hire HIV-positive workers only for positions that don't involve bodily contact, such as dishwashers, food and beverage staff, office assistants, prep cooks, ushers, and merchandise "hawkers." The Montreal-based troupe has admitted to firing openly gay gymnast Matthew Cusick in July solely because he has HIV, prompting a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission and the subsequent investigation by San Francisco, which is renting out property to the company for its show Alegria. "Even 20 years ago, Cirque du Soleil's comments would be suspect," said Hayley Gorenberg, AIDS project director for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which is representing Cusick. "Today, they are shockingly ignorant. If Cirque du Soleil ran the Lakers in the 1990s, Magic Johnson would have been transferred to wash dishes in the stadium restaurant after he disclosed his HIV status."
In its five-page letter, Cirque said that it contracts with temporary staffing agencies and "there are many employment positions that would be suited to an individual with HIV. Any one of these positions could be filled by an individual with HIV because these jobs do not involve constant bodily contact with others and a high degree of potential injury with possible bodily fluid exposure." Cirque also claimed that it has offered employment to Cusick since terminating him days before he was set to start performing in the Las Vegas-based show Mystere, but the company neglected to specify that it continues refusing Cusick a job as a performer. "We've always said Cirque du Soleil is illegally keeping people with HIV out of certain jobs, despite sound science and common sense, and now Cirque has confirmed that," Gorenberg said. "Whatever Cirque's formal policies are, it blocks people with HIV from positions where they can safely perform, and that's discrimination. There has never been a case of an athlete transmitting HIV during performance or competition. Our client's dream job is to be a performer, not a dishwasher. Because he's qualified to be a performer and can do that job safely, that's the job he should have."
Lambda, in conjunction with several gay rights leaders, launched a national campaign against Cirque du Soleil earlier this year, with protests at Cirque shows in several cities and a nationwide petition drive. Next month the EEOC in Nevada is set to conclude its investigation of Cirque in response to Lambda's federal discrimination complaint. That filing, which ignited the current controversy, is unrelated to the current proceedings before the San Francisco Human Rights Commission. In a letter to the public, Cirque du Soleil has claimed that Cusick was fired "solely for safety reasons" and that such action is not "discrimination." Cirque's letter and its other public statements on the issue offer no explanation for how a gymnast could transmit HIV while performing. According to Lambda, mainstream medical, scientific, and athletic organizations say that athletes with HIV should not be restricted from performing or competing.