Advocacy Groups Protest Cirque du Soleil’s Firing of HIV-Positive Gymnast
Gymnast Matthew Cusick and members of some San Francisco-area advocacy groups, including the Stop AIDS Project and the Horizons Foundation, on Thursday night planned to hold a demonstration in front of Cirque du Soleil's tent in San Francisco to protest the circus troupe's firing of Cusick because of his HIV-positive status, the San Francisco Chronicle reports (Hua, San Francisco Chronicle, 11/20). Cusick said that he disclosed the fact that he is HIV-positive to the company shortly after being hired in July 2002. He underwent several medical evaluations and was found to be in good health and considered fully able to perform with Cirque. However, shortly before he was to begin performing in the company's Las Vegas show "Mystere," Cirque sent him a letter terminating his employment stating that his HIV-positive status "will likely pose a direct threat of harm to others, particularly in the case of future injury" (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 7/17). Cirque said in a public statement, "We believed the risk of exposing fellow artists, technicians and/or spectators to HIV as a consequence of injurious physical contact was too great" (San Francisco Chronicle, 11/20).
In July, the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a federal discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Montreal-based Cirque on behalf of Cusick. Hayley Gorenberg, Cusick's attorney, said that Cusick was denied the job "not because of sound science or rational concern for other employees but because of unfounded fear" (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 7/17). 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 people with HIV, the Chronicle reports. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act protects people living with HIV, but an employer's obligation to a disabled employee is limited if an employee "poses a risk to himself or to coworkers," according to labor lawyers.
Cirque spokesperson Renee-Claude Menard said that the casting department had offered Cusick a position as a "catcher" -- which is considered a risky role -- in the show because the casting director was not aware of Cusick's HIV status. Menard said that because coaches were present but there was no audience during the time of Cusick's training for the show, the company's "perceived risk" was reduced, explaining why Cirque did not fire Cusick until three days before he was set to perform in Las Vegas, according to the Chronicle. Menard said that Cusick is eligible for other jobs with the troupe, adding that the company has other employees who are HIV-positive in less risky positions. Cusick said that the company never offered him any other positions, according to the Chronicle. The American Medical Society for Sports Medicine and the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine in a joint statement said that the risks of sports-related HIV transmission are low, but the theoretical chance of HIV transmission is "not zero," adding, "Based on current medical and epidemiological information, HIV infection alone is insufficient grounds to prohibit athletic competition." Raymond Wheeler, an employment and labor practice lawyer in San Francisco, said that Cirque must be able to demonstrate a "real risk" of HIV transmission, not "just hypothetical situations," according to the Chronicle. The EEOC is expected to complete its investigation within six months, at which time it could mediate a settlement between the two parties or Cusick can sue Cirque, the Chronicle reports. More protests are planned as Cirque's show travels to Atlanta, New York and other cities, according to the Chronicle (San Francisco Chronicle, 11/20).