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Cirque Du Soleil Does Not Have Official Policy Prohibiting Hiring of HIV-Positive Employees, Officials Say

December 19, 2003

Cirque du Soleil officials have told the San Francisco Human Rights Commission that the Montreal-based circus troupe does not have a "blanket policy" prohibiting the hiring of HIV-positive performers, the AP/San Francisco Chronicle reports. However, the company is "legally entitled" to decide if an individual with HIV should be kept out of a job that involves "constant bodily contact with others," Cirque officials said, according to the AP/Chronicle (AP/San Francisco Chronicle, 12/18). The Human Rights Commission last month opened an investigation against Cirque based on allegations that the company discriminated against gymnast Matthew Cusick because of his HIV-positive status. Cusick said that he disclosed his HIV-positive status to Cirque shortly after his July 2002 hiring and underwent several medical evaluations and was found to be in good health and considered fully able to perform with the company. However, shortly before he was to begin performing in the company's Las Vegas show "Mystere," Cirque sent him a letter terminating his employment and stating that his HIV-positive status "will likely pose a direct threat of harm to others, particularly in the case of future injury." In July, the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a federal discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Cirque on Cusick's behalf. Cusick is considering seeking reinstatement of his contract and damages, and he also wants Cirque to educate the public and the company about discrimination against HIV-positive people. Cirque has other employees who are HIV-positive, but they work in roles that the company believes are safe for other workers and spectators, Cirque spokesperson Renee Claude Menard said. The role Cusick was to fill is considered "risky," Menard added (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 11/24).

Scott Abbott, Cirque's lawyer in Las Vegas, said in the company's written response to the commission's inquiry, "Cirque categorically denies that it discriminates against any individual on the basis of HIV status." Larry Brinkin, senior contract compliance officer for the city of San Francisco, said, "I think [Cirque] can use more information from the medical and sports world about how HIV is transmitted. As far as we know, there hasn't been a single case of transmission of HIV through a sporting incident in the 20-plus years of the epidemic." Menard said, "Most people, and I understand completely, cannot properly evaluate what we mean by safety and risk. All this beautiful work [in Cirque shows] looks effortless, it looks easy, but we have been doing this for 20 years and we know what has happened" (AP/San Francisco Chronicle, 12/18).

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