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Stronger than the
mighty Cirque

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

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 Mystere, 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 Renee-Claude Menard. 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," Menard tells The Advocate, "it was an expert Cirque opinion." Though infrequent, midair collisions among Cirque gymnasts "are very brutal," Menard 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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