In Damage Control Attempts Amid Growing Public Concern About HIV Bias, Cirque du Soleil Admits Firing Gymnast Because He Has HIV, But Says That's Not "Discrimination"
Crique du Soleil under fire as community concern and opposition spreads; Lambda Legal and San Francisco groups to hold community action outside "Alegria" performance on Thursday evening, Nov. 20
(San Francisco, November 13, 2003) - One week after Lambda Legal and community activists launched protests against Cirque du Soleil for discriminating against people with HIV, the company has started sending a six-paragraph letter to members of the public - admitting that it fired a gymnast solely because he has HIV, but claiming that such action is not “discrimination.”
“It’s mind-boggling that Cirque du Soleil readily admits they fired someone for no other reason than his HIV status, and then says that isn’t discrimination. Today, it’s clearer than ever that Cirque du Soleil just doesn’t get it. People with HIV can work safely in a wide variety of jobs, and it’s illegal to fire people because they have HIV,” said Michael Adams, Director of Education & Public Affairs at Lambda Legal. “We started this campaign with community groups to teach Cirque du Soleil an important lesson about discrimination - and we’re now seeing how badly this is needed and what a powerful impact it’s already having.”
The campaign, “Discrimination: Another Side of Cirque du Soleil,” launched last week with protestors “welcoming” Cirque du Soleil’s “Alegria” show to San Francisco on its opening night by greeting people in line to see the performance with leaflets and materials on the company’s discrimination. Lambda Legal is co-sponsoring a large community action in San Francisco on Thursday evening, Nov. 20, outside the “Alegria” performance.
Lambda Legal filed a federal discrimination complaint in July against Cirque du Soleil on behalf of Matthew Cusick, who was fired because he has HIV. Although the company’s own doctors cleared him to safely perform for the Las Vegas-based show “Mystere,” Cirque du Soleil management told Cusick that because he has HIV the company would not continue to employ him. Cusick describes the Cirque du Soleil position as a “dream job” for any gymnast.
In the letter Cirque du Soleil is sending members of the public who write to the company to complain about the discrimination, Cirque du Soleil senior staffer Renee-Claude Menard says Cusick was fired “solely for safety reasons.” Cusick was hired to perform on the Russian High Bar and the Chinese Poles. Menard’s letter and Cirque du Soleil’s other public statements on the issue offer no explanation for how a highly trained gymnast could transmit HIV while performing in such a heavily rehearsed and choreographed show.
Several mainstream organizations - including those dealing with sports that involve far more physical contact than Cirque du Soleil performances - have clear policy statements, based on volumes of credible scientific research, that athletes with HIV should not be restricted. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), for example, says, “There are no validated cases of HIV transmission in the athletics setting,” and concludes that “there is no recommended restriction of student-athletes merely because they are infected with HIV.”
A variety of people who have signed Lambda Legal’s online petition to Cirque du Soleil and sent letters to the company have responded to Menard’s letter to say that it is inaccurate and doesn’t satisfy their concerns. They include members of the “Cirque Club” (the company’s group for dedicated fans), lesbian and gay people, and HIV/AIDS medical researchers.
In addition to action at the San Francisco show Nov. 20 and throughout the month, Lambda Legal and local leaders will hold community events at Cirque du Soleil performances in a number of cities, including Atlanta (March 25 through April 11, 2004) and New York (May 6 through June 6, 2004). Read our package of materials for the “Discrimination: Another Side of Cirque du Soleil” campaign - including printable leaflets and post-cards, petitions and other resources.
Contact: Fred Shank, 212/809-8585 ext. 267