Stronger than the mighty Cirque

When Cirque du Soleil fired openly gay gymnast Matthew Cusick from his dream job for being HIV-positive, he fought back and won

BY Patrick Letellier

March 30 2004 1:00 AM ET

When openly gay
gymnast Matthew Cusick was called into a meeting with
Cirque du Soleil officials last April, he thought he was
taking the final step in his lifelong quest to be an
acrobatic performer. The Maryland resident had quit
his job as a gymnastics coach and broken up with his
boyfriend to participate in four months of training in
Montreal. With that training completed, Cusick had
just signed a contract to fill a position Cirque had
offered to him in a Las Vegas show.
But the meeting was not about travel
arrangements or final details, as Cusick expected.
Instead, he was fired for being HIV-positive. “It
was a total shock,” Cusick says. “They said
due to my HIV status, they were terminating my
contract. They told me I could infect other
performers, the crew, and even the audience.”
Cirque officials took away Cusick’s
security badge, which had allowed him access to the
private training areas, and advised him not to tell
other performers he was HIV-positive. Two more meetings
followed, with officials reiterating their claim that
Cusick posed a hazard to his colleagues and others.
“I was just so stunned,” he says.
“They had offered me a part, and after I trained and
gave everything up, they ripped it away from me.”
Cusick packed his bags and returned to his
parents’ home in Silver Spring, Md., where he
took a job as a bartender. His story might have ended
there, but he believed Cirque was wrong. With the help of
the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, this
unassuming man who has appeared to be shy of the media
filed a federal discrimination complaint against the
company. His case generated international media attention,
an outcry from medical experts and entertainers, and
nationwide protests of Cirque shows. In January the
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled
there was “reasonable cause” to believe he had
been discriminated against, and Cirque offered to
reinstate Cusick as a performer. A week later it
changed its hiring policies to include people with HIV.
But Cusick’s case is not over. Cirque has
not offered him the same job it had previously nor, as
of press time, any specific assignment. Until he is
assured of a position, Cusick doesn’t know if he will
accept Cirque’s offer, and he still could sue the
company in federal court. “The dream was hard
to walk away from,” says Cusick, 32, who is
currently working as a personal trainer and a fitness
instructor in the Washington, D.C., area. “And what
they did hurt me. It hurt me a lot.”
What happened to Cusick catapulted the issue of
HIV discrimination in sports into the international
spotlight, as happened over the past 15 years when
basketball star Magic Johnson, Olympic diver Greg Louganis,
and champion skater Rudy Galindo each publicly declared
their HIVpositive status. Cusick’s case also
focused new attention on the uneasy place people
living with HIV continue to occupy in American society and
the seemingly endless stigma many face even now, more than
20 years into the epidemic. “From the Castro to
towns in the rural South, you scratch the surface of
things and underneath there’s still this
irrational, visceral fear of HIV,” says Terje
Anderson, director of the National Association of
People With AIDS. “It’s like ‘the
perfect storm’ of stigma.”
Cusick’s pursuit of a career in
gymnastics has taken up much of his life. His parents
put him into a tumbling class when he was 5 years old
because he was “bouncing all over the
furniture,” he says. In elementary and junior
high school he was teased for being gay and for
pursuing the sport he loves. “It’s not
considered a manly sport,” Cusick explains,
“plus you wear a leotard.” But
gymnastics taught him determination. “If you live
your life in a state of fear, then you’re not
really living,” he says. So he endured the
taunts and at 16 became a Maryland state gymnastics
champion. He then began a successful 14-year coaching career.
Cusick always knew he is gay, but didn’t
tell his family even after testing HIV-positive at 22.
“It’s hard to tell your parents that
you’re gay, let alone that you’re gay and
HIV-positive. I come from a loving family. [But] there
was always that slim doubt, that 1% chance” of
rejection, he says. “I also didn’t want
the stigma and discrimination that goes with HIV.”
He eventually told his two brothers, his sister,
and his parents. “They said they would support
me and be there if I needed them,” he says,
“and they have.” When Cusick decided to
go public and battle Cirque as an openly gay man with HIV,
“They said, ‘We’re behind you
100%,’ ” he says.
In 2000, Cusick sent Cirque a demo tape and was
invited to audition. Cirque officials told Cusick they
had a part for him, but it never materialized, and he
kept his coaching job in Maryland. A year passed
before Cirque called again and invited him to Montreal for
rigorous training. Cusick jumped at the chance and
left behind his job, his apartment, and a one-year
relationship with a partner who couldn’t
relocate. And he did it all without reservation. “It
was something I really wanted,” Cusick says.
“It was my dream.”
The four-month training was difficult, Cusick
says, but “I gave 110%, and I loved every
minute of it.” When he was examined by a Cirque
doctor on his first day, he revealed his HIV status. Because
he had been HIV-positive for 10 years and had told his
own physician long before, the revelation seemed
inconsequential. Later that week Cusick was examined
by a second doctor who focused specifically on HIV, asking
about his medications, T-cell count, and viral load.
Both physicians evaluated Cusick in writing as a
“healthy athlete” who was
“cleared for full participation” with Cirque.
Cusick was offered a two-month contract to fill
in for a performer in Mystère, a popular
show at the Treasure Island resort in Las Vegas.
Another two-week training period ensued, this one for the
Russian Highbar position he’d been hired to
fill. “I was living on cloud nine,”
Cusick says of the training, “and building cloud
10.” But at the end of that second training period he
was fired. “I was extremely hurt, and I
believed they were wrong,” he says. “And
I wanted to make sure what had happened to me would not
happen to anyone else. Nobody should have to go through what
I did.”
He filed his complaint under the Americans With
Disabilities Act, which makes it illegal for employers
to fire qualified people from jobs simply because they
have certain conditions, including HIV. (While Cirque is
based in Canada, it must obey U.S. laws when doing business
here.) Cusick knew he would have to come out in the
media as HIV-positive. “That was the hardest
part,” he says. “Everyone and their sister
Mary would know I have HIV, and sometimes when people know
that, they want nothing to do with you. And it hurts.”
Cusick’s case quickly attracted
international attention, and a slew of entertainers
and athletes joined the fight, including Galindo, Rosie
O’Donnell, Nathan Lane, Chita Rivera, B.D. Wong, and
Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner.
“It’s especially shocking and
disgraceful to find bigotry and ignorance about the AIDS
epidemic manifest in 2004,” Kushner says.
Lambda helped organize protests of Cirque shows
in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Orange County,
Calif. People signed petitions and sent out e-mails.
Cirque was inundated by messages supporting Cusick and
criticizing the company for its anti-HIV policy.
“People would say, ‘Come on, this is
2004, not 1984,’ ” recalls Cirque
spokeswoman Renée-Claude Ménard. A publicity
nightmare ensued for the popular company.

And popular
Cirque is: The company has nine touring shows, plus three
permanent shows in Las Vegas and one at Florida’s
Walt Disney World. It boasts a worldwide staff of
2,700, including 600 performers. Over 40 million
people in 90 cities have seen Cirque shows, including 7
million in 2003 alone. In 2002 Cirque reported $500 million
in revenues. “They were one of the first
circuses to integrate storytelling with their acts.
They have universal appeal,” says Morrie Warshawski,
a Michigan-based arts and entertainment consultant who
coauthored a report for the Western States Arts
Federation in 2000 on Cirque’s artistic and
financial success. “They are definitely going to lose
an audience.”
Cirque officials argued that if Cusick were to
be scratched or involved in a midair collision, HIV
could pass from him to another performer. Firing
Cusick “was not a medical opinion, and it was not an
expert opinion,” Ménard tells The
Advocate,
“it was an expert Cirque
opinion.” Though infrequent, midair collisions among
Cirque gymnasts “are very brutal,” Ménard
says, “and there has been bloodshed. What
we’re saying is that with this particular
job—aerial performer—that’s where we
believe there’s a risk.”
But the EEOC didn’t agree. Before the
ruling Lambda argued that 20 years of medical and
scientific research, not to mention the experience of
millions of people with HIV, has shown there is no risk. No
incident of HIV transmission during an athletic event
has ever been documented—including among
boxers, who sometimes spurt blood onto each other. And
organizations as varied as the U.S. Olympic Committee,
the World Health Organization, and the National College
Athletic Association all agree: There is no reason to
exclude HIV-positive athletes from contact sports.
Because he is an acrobat, Cusick’s case
is unusual, but discrimination against people with HIV
is not. Such discrimination is still rampant, says
Tamara Lange, staff attorney at the AIDS Project of
the American Civil Liberties Union, and most of it has to do
with ignorance and fear. “Most of us are
familiar with colds and the flu, but people
don’t get that HIV is not transmitted in the same
way,” she says. Despite two decades of AIDS
education, the misconception that HIV is spread
through casual contact persists in startlingly high
numbers, adds University of California, Davis, professor
Gregory Herek, an expert on HIV-related stigma. As late as
1999, half the people involved in a national survey by
Herek still believed HIV could be transmitted by
sharing a drinking glass or sneezing.
But ignorance and fear are only part of the
picture, Herek says. “There’s still very
much an equation linking homosexuality with HIV in the
U.S.,” he says. This “double whammy,”
as he calls it, can intensify the belief “that people
who have the disease are somehow morally deficient and
they’ve done something wrong to deserve
it.” He believes this moralistic rhetoric is used
by the religious right to further a conservative political
agenda, including opposition to same-sex marriage and
other gay rights causes. “They want to do as
much as they can to stigmatize the gay community, and
they see HIV as another opportunity for doing that,”
he says.
With stigma on one hand and discrimination on
the other, it is no surprise that many people with
HIV, perhaps gay men in particular, do not want others
to know their serostatus, Lange says. The fear of being
identified as HIV-positive, she says, “is so
profound, it discourages people from getting tested or
seeking care, even when they have AIDS and are quite
sick.” What is needed, she says, is HIV
education that is explicit about both transmission and the
rights of people with the virus.
“[But] what we’ve seen in the past
few years is a lessening in interest in covering HIV
issues,” says Michael Adams, Lambda’s
director of education and public affairs. He commends
Cusick for for bringing the issue out. “Matthew stood
up to a multinational corporation,” he says.
“He was willing to step forward and say,
‘My name is Matthew Cusick, and I was fired
because I have HIV.’ That made a huge difference.”
Like Adams, Cusick is critical of the media,
including The Advocate, for what he believes is
a failure to adequately address HIV discrimination. He
was particularly upset when The Advocate
published a cover story on two gay male Cirque performers
last November without mentioning his firing. “I
was deeply hurt when I saw that cover,” Cusick
says. “It was a blatant attempt to pass off
Cirque du Soleil in a gay-friendly way. Our community needs
to recognize that HIV discrimination is a major
problem, and our news sources should reflect that.”
Until he reaches an agreement with Cirque,
including working as an acrobat, Cusick will stay in
Maryland. “All I’ve done is stand up for
myself,” he says. “But I hope it helps other
people be strong and fight for what they believe in. And I
hope my future is bright.”

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