Matthew Cusick, a lifelong gymnast, said he was fired from a spot in a popular Cirque du Soleil show just days before he was scheduled to perform because he is HIV-positive.
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Friday, August 15, 2003
For Matthew Cusick, working for the popular circus troupe Cirque du Soleil was
to be a dream come true.
It was the end of March, and in a matter of days he was set to begin performing
in their Las Vegas show, “Mystere.” He had been training and performing
for the role for months and was in the midst of costume fittings and other
But then the company fired him without warning. They told him that because
he is HIV-positive — a fact the Silver Spring, Md. resident had previously
disclosed to Cirque’s doctors — they could not allow him to perform
for fear of putting others at risk of contracting the disease.
“I was crushed,” Cusick said. “I saw a dream that was happening,
and now it’s not. Now it’s just something that’s not coming
Cirque du Soleil’s actions led Cusick, who turns 32 next week, to file
a federal discrimination complaint against the company.
With help from the Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund, Cusick’s
complaint was filed July 15 with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
in Los Angeles. In the complaint, Cusick said he disclosed his HIV status to
the company months before he was fired, and had been cleared twice by the company’s
own doctors as being a healthy athlete who was perfectly able to perform.
But Cirque du Soleil said the company couldn’t risk other performers
or patrons getting infected.
“It was one of the most difficult decisions that Cirque has had to make
because in our usual corporate attitude we’re known to be a very open-minded
organization, … but we had to make it for safety reasons,” said
Renee Claude Menard, a spokesperson for Cirque.
“We had to evaluate that the act that Mr. Cusick was asked to perform
is an aerial act, one that is very high-risk. We could not take that safety
risk for any of our other employees or our patrons, so we had to terminate
that contract,” she said.
Cusick, who has lived in the D.C. area since he was 12, was previously a bartender
at the gay club Cobalt and currently works as a personal trainer. But he’s
been a gymnast for much of his life, and was even a gymnastics coach for 14
years. He left his job at Cobalt after being hired by Cirque du Soleil.
Working with the circus, he said, would have been the pinnacle of his career.
“It’s actually a job that most people who want to stay in the
sport kind of aspire to,” Cusick said. “It’s the top of the
sport in a way because you don’t really have professional gymnastics
so much, you just have to do shows and stuff like that. So they’re the
The Canada-based Cirque du Soleil currently operates eight shows in North America,
Europe and Asia, which are seen by about 7 million people a year. “Mystere,” the
show for which Cusick was hired, is currently being performed at Treasure Island
in Las Vegas.
After making it through a rigorous audition process, Cusick was hired to be
a high bar catcher for two acts — the Chinese poles and the Russian high
bar. In the former, gymnasts perform individually and do not interact with
each other; on the latter, gymnasts hang by their legs from a swinging structure
and catch other performers coming off a bar.
Once he was hired, Cusick began training in July 2002. During training, he
had two separate examinations by the company’s doctor, whose notes said
Cusick was a “healthy athlete” who “should be able to perform,” according
to Lambda Legal. Cusick, who has been HIV-positive for about 10 years, said
he disclosed his HIV status from the beginning.
“[My HIV status] came up in conversations at the beginning of training
last year,” Cusick said. “We had to go through a physical evaluation
to check to see if our joints were okay, if we had any broken bones, and that’s
the first day we got there.”
“He said I was fine,” Cusick said of the company’s doctor.
Hayley Gorenberg, Lambda Legal’s AIDS Project director and Cusick’s
attorney, said the doctor specifically cleared Cusick to work for Cirque du
Soleil. She also noted that a number of athletic organizations, including the
U.S. Olympic Committee, the National Basketball Association and the National
Collegiate Athletic Association, have all said athletes have virtually no risk
of contracting HIV during competition.
“They all concluded that [HIV-]positive athletes should not be exempted
from competition,” Gorenberg said. “It’s not like Cirque
has to go out and figure this out.”
But Menard said the company was only showing concern for others’ safety.
“This is not a discrimination issue; it’s a safety issue,” Menard
said. “We do have other HIV-positive employees. … It’s not
like we don’t know what this disease is about. But we also know what’s
involved in an aerial act, and that was the only reason why we had to terminate
Cusick said his HIV status in no way hindered his ability to perform and did
not put other performers at risk. He filed the complaint, he said, to fight “an
“I knew that this was something wrong. It had to be righted, you know.
It had to be made right,” Cusick said.
The EEOC will most likely mediate any attempt to resolve the complaint. Menard
confirmed that Cirque du Soleil received the complaint two weeks ago, and said
the company was currently “reviewing it.”
Cusick said he hopes to be reinstated in his job and compensated monetarily.
But he said that, despite the company’s claim that it is already knowledgeable
about HIV and AIDS, what he wants most is for them to become more aware of
issues related to the disease.
“When I first talked to Lambda that’s one of the things I wanted
to have happen, was training and education,” Cusick said, “because
I think it was due to lack of education that this happened. Lack of knowledge
of this disease, of HIV.”
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