Pressure Builds Against Cirque du Soleil for HIV Bias, With More Protests Set in San Francisco and Orange County and National Petition Drive for World AIDS Day

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Amid growing public concern, San Francisco Human Rights Commission launches investigation of show on city property, requiring response from Cirque next week
November 24, 2003

(San Francisco, November 25, 2003) - Following successful protests at Cirque du Soleil shows in San Francisco and Los Angeles in recent days, Lambda Legal and local activists today announced plans for additional protests outside shows in San Francisco and Orange County to denounce Cirque for firing a gymnast because he has HIV.


Lambda Legal will deliver petition signatures and notes from people in all 50 states to Cirque du Soleil on World AIDS Day, next Monday, Dec. 1 -- the day before Cirque is required to respond to an investigation the San Francisco Human Rights Commission opened last week. Cirque leases public property for its San Francisco “Alegria” show and must abide by local nondiscrimination laws, or the commission can levy fines, terminate Cirque’s contract, or disbar the company from future city contracts.

“Cirque du Soleil is learning that discrimination is bad business,” said Michael Adams, Director of Education & Public Affairs at Lambda Legal. “A growing consensus of organizations, athletes, artists, medical experts, government officials and communities are sending Cirque a clear message that this discrimination is outside the mainstream and won’t go unnoticed. We’re delivering that message to Cirque’s doorstep at these local shows and with the first batch of petitions on World AIDS Day.” Some petitions are signed papers gathered by local activists, while others are submitted from around the country online at www.LambdaLegal.org.

These increasing protests stem from a federal discrimination complaint Lambda Legal filed in July against Cirque du Soleil on behalf of Matthew Cusick, who was fired from a performance position for having HIV. Although the company’s own doctors cleared him to safely perform, Cirque du Soleil management told Cusick that because he has HIV the company would not continue to employ him. Earlier this month, Lambda Legal and activists launched a broad campaign against Cirque du Soleil.

Following a successful community action last Thursday outside the “Alegria” show in San Francisco, Lambda Legal and activists said today that they will protest outside the show from 6 to 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 6, 13 and 20. The last performance of the show is Dec. 21. In Orange County, community members will protest outside Cirque’s “Verekai” show every day that it runs - from Jan. 16 to Feb. 18. Those protests come on the heels of a successful community action outside the final performance of “Verekai” in Los Angeles last Sunday.

“When I first heard that Cirque du Soleil fired this gymnast, I was horrified and knew I had to do something about it,” said Jackie Mathis of Orange County, who is working with Lambda Legal to coordinate the protests there. “Cirque du Soleil markets itself to the gay community so much, and HIV is a very big issue within our community. It’s callous and wrong for Cirque to try to separate the two issues -- taking our money with one hand while discriminating against us with the other.”

At the protests, community members distribute leaflets with information on Cusick’s case to people entering and leaving the shows. They also distribute stickers for people to wear into the performance to show their support. While the organized campaign seeks to educate Cirque du Soleil rather than boycott the company, a number of individuals from San Francisco, Southern California and elsewhere say they won’t attend Cirque’s performance because of the company’s HIV discrimination.

Lambda Legal and other local leaders will protest at Cirque du Soleil performances in several other cities in the weeks and months ahead, including Atlanta (March 25 through April 11, 2004) and New York (May 6 through June 6, 2004). For more information, read our package of materials on the campaign -- including printable leaflets, petitions and other resources.

Meanwhile, Cirque du Soleil is required to file a formal response with the San Francisco Human Rights Commission by next Tuesday, Dec. 2. Cirque will have to provide copies of any policies it has on employing people with HIV, documents written by medical authorities that recommend not hiring people with HIV, copies of precautions the company’s employees take to prevent transmission of communicable diseases and a list of titles and descriptions of positions for which people with HIV would not be hired.

In an attempt at damage control amid growing public outcry over Cusick’s case, Cirque du Soleil has been sending a letter to members of the public -- admitting that it fired Cusick solely because he has HIV, but claiming that such action is not “discrimination.” In the letter, Cirque du Soleil says Cusick was fired “solely for safety reasons.” Cirque’s letter and its 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. Mainstream medical, scientific and athletic organizations say that athletes with HIV should not be restricted from performing or competing.

In recent weeks, dozens of organizations and individuals have joined the campaign against Cirque du Soleil. They include: Rudy Galindo (U.S. men’s figure-skating champion); David Picheler (Olympic diver 1992, 1996, 2000); Patrick Jeffrey (Olympic diver 1988, 1996); Eric Anderson (first openly gay high school or collegiate male sports coach); Dr. Paul Volderbing, M.D. (leading national and international authority on HIV since the first days of the epidemic); and Dr. John Stansell, M.D. (also a leading authority on HIV); the Stop AIDS Project; the National Association of People with AIDS; the San Francisco AIDS Foundation; the San Francisco Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center; the Asian & Pacific Islander Wellness Center; Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays; Lyon-Martin Women’s Health Services; the Horizons Foundation; the National Center for Lesbian Rights; Bay Area Physicians for Human Rights; Broadway CARES/Equity Fights AIDS; Dancers Responding to AIDS; the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association; HIV/AIDS Legal Services Alliance; and Being Alive/People with AIDS Action Coalition.

Hayley Gorenberg, Director of Lambda Legal’s AIDS Project, represents Cusick.

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Contact:
Fred Shank, 212/809-8585, x267

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