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Cirque du Soleil Unlawfully Denied Gymnast "Dream Job" Because He Has HIV, Lambda Legal Says in Federal Discrimination Complaint

Skilled Gymnast Was Set for a Key Role In the Las Vegas Show, "Mystere," Only to Be Rejected Because He Has HIV, Despite Posing No Safety Risk

July 15, 2003

Los Angeles -- Arguing that Cirque du Soleil violated state and federal laws by denying a highly qualified gymnast an integral part in its "Mystere" show this spring, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a federal discrimination complaint against the company in Los Angeles today.

Cirque du Soleil hired gymnast Matthew Cusick last summer to train for its popular show, "Mystere." Cusick spent several months training for the performance and went through extensive medical exams with Cirque du Soleil’s own doctor, whose notes said Cusick was a "healthy athlete" who "should be able to perform." But shortly before he was scheduled to begin performing, Cirque du Soleil told Cusick that because he has HIV the company would not continue to employ him.

"Matthew is a healthy and vibrant man in top physical condition who is living his life to the fullest with HIV," said Hayley Gorenberg, Lambda Legal’s AIDS Project Director. "Matthew is perfect for this job, which is why Cirque du Soleil hired him in the first place and why we’re fighting to get his job back."

Cusick was hired to be a High Bar Catcher, who would perform on the Russian High Bar and the Chinese Poles. On the Chinese Poles, gymnasts perform individually and do not interact with each other. On the Russian High Bar, the performer hangs by his legs from a swinging structure and catches other performers coming off of a bar.

In a letter this spring responding to Lambda Legal’s formal request to reinstate Cusick in the performance, Cirque du Soleil’s attorneys said the company was acting as a "socially responsible employer" that has an obligation to avoid "known safety hazards."

"It’s preposterous for Cirque de Soleil to call Matthew a 'known safety hazard,'" Gorenberg said. "Cirque du Soleil denied Matthew this job not because of sound science or rational concern for other employees, but because of unfounded fear. It defies both common sense and science to think that Matthew would exchange bodily fluids with another gymnast while flying through the air." In the complaint filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Los Angeles office today, Lambda Legal said Cirque du Soleil denied Cusick a job without a valid reason, since he does not a pose a health risk or safety threat to himself or anyone else. Federal and state laws prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities if they pose no real risk to themselves or others and if the illness doesn’t interfere with their ability to do the job.

Cusick, who has been living with HIV for 10 years and whose viral load was undetectable in two comprehensive medical exams by Cirque du Soleil’s doctor, disclosed his HIV status without incident before beginning any training with Cirque du Soleil. After spending four months training in Quebec, he was set to complete some final last-minute training before starting in "Mystere," when Cirque du Soleil officials told him that he no longer had the job and the income he had been counting on.

"For any gymnastics performer, working for Cirque du Soleil is a dream job," said Cusick, who also works part time as a personal trainer. "Maybe it’s naïve, but I never thought I’d be kept from pursuing my dreams because I’m HIV-positive. I thought society had gotten beyond thinking that people with HIV can only do desk jobs and never come into contact with people."

According to Gorenberg, Lambda Legal's AIDS Project regularly receives calls and letters from people who are denied employment or basic services because of unjustified fear of HIV transmission. "We’ve come a long way since the beginning of this epidemic, but people like Matthew still face irrational discrimination all across the country," Gorenberg said. "Today, the HIV/AIDS community is incredibly diverse. Matthew may have HIV, but he is in better physical shape than most people who don’t have HIV. At the same time, new HIV medications and complications with the virus are wreaking a tremendous physical toll on many people."

About Cirque du Soleil

Cirque du Soleil was founded in 1984 and has become one of the largest touring performance shows in the world. More than 37 million fans have attended its performances, and nearly 7 million people are expected to see the eight shows being performed this year in North America, Europe and Asia. Cirque du Soleil employs nearly 2,500 people worldwide, including a cast of more than 500 performers. "Mystere" is currently being performed at Treasure Island in Las Vegas, Nevada.

About Lambda Legal’s AIDS Project

Lambda Legal was founded in 1973 to advance the civil rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people, and began working on behalf of people with HIV and AIDS at the onset of the epidemic in the 1980s. Lambda Legal filed the first AIDS discrimination case in the nation in 1983, and later successfully forced hospitals to treat people with HIV and pushed prescription drug companies to lower the cost of HIV and AIDS treatments. Lambda Legal’s AIDS Project has won critical victories on behalf of people with HIV and AIDS to be treated equally and with dignity in employment, medical services, public accommodations, parenting and other areas of life.

For more information, contact Fred Shank, 212-809-8585, ext. 267.

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This article was provided by Lambda Legal. Visit Lambda Legal's website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.
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