Opposition Builds Against Cirque du Soleil for Firing Gymnast with HIV, as Growing Number of Local and National Organizations Speak Out

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San Francisco's Stop AIDS Project, the National Association of People with AIDS, cross-section of other groups hold community action with Lambda Legal outside "Alegria" show Thursday evening, Nov. 20
November 17, 2003

(San Francisco, November 16, 2003) - Leading local and national organizations are joining forces to protest Cirque du Soleil for discriminating against people with HIV, Lambda Legal said today. The groups and an increasing number of concerned individuals will join Lambda Legal for a community action outside Cirque du Soleil’s “Alegria” performance in San Francisco Thursday night - and in growing protests in the weeks and months ahead.

The protests stem from a federal discrimination complaint Lambda Legal filed 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, 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 “Discrimination: Another Side of Cirque du Soleil,” with protests at Cirque’s show in San Francisco (including the community action this Thursday, Nov. 20, starting at 6:30 p.m. outside the show), a nationwide petition drive and planned protests in the months ahead at other Cirque shows nationwide.

Today, Lambda Legal announced that a range of influential organizations have joined the campaign and will participate in Thursday night’s community action. They include: the Stop AIDS Project, one of the largest and most influential HIV/AIDS groups in the Bay Area; the National Association of People with AIDS, which for 20 years has been a leading voice on behalf of people with HIV and AIDS around the country; The San Francisco Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center; San Francisco’s Asian & Pacific Islander Wellness Center; PFLAG-San Francisco and PFLAG-Peninsula, both local chapters of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays; Lyon-Martin Women’s Health Services, which provides care to more than 4,000 Bay Area women each year; the San Francisco-based Horizons Foundation; the National Center for Lesbian Rights; and Bay Area Physicians for Human Rights. In addition, Lambda Legal said that a variety of student organizations, labor groups and LGBT or HIV/AIDS advocates have joined the campaign.

“Every day, we’re hearing from more local and national groups who are committed to holding Cirque du Soleil accountable for its HIV discrimination,” said Michael Adams, Lambda Legal’s Director of Education & Public Affairs, who will speak at Thursday night’s community action. “Cirque du Soleil may have thought Matthew Cusick would just go away when they fired him for having HIV, but this growing alliance of groups fighting back on his behalf cannot be ignored.”

The Stop AIDS Project, which was founded in 1984 and is an internationally recognized model for community organizing and education about HIV and AIDS, got involved with the campaign in part because Cirque du Soleil is spreading inaccurate information about HIV transmission. “It is important to tell the truth when we talk about HIV,” said Darlene Weide, Executive Director of the Stop AIDS Project. “Not only is it our responsibility to discuss what life is like with the virus, but it is our ethical duty to talk about stigma against people who live with HIV, who face horrible discriminations in every walk of life that aren't based on the science of the epidemic. Whether it's a popular company or an individual community member that acts unfairly because they don't know the facts of transmission, I know the people of San Francisco will not tolerate these actions.”

The National Association of People with AIDS said it applauds Cusick’s courage in coming forward to fight Cirque du Soleil’s discrimination. “A community of people with HIV and AIDS all across the country stands behind Matthew Cusick in demanding that Cirque du Soleil stop discriminating against people based on their HIV status,” said Eric Ciasullo, Chair of the Board of Directors of the National Association of People with AIDS and Manager of the San Francisco Department of Public Health’s HIV/AIDS Return to Work Initiative, who will speak at Thursday night’s event. “Cirque du Soleil's discrimination represents every HIV-positive worker's worst nightmare -- that disclosing HIV status on the job will lead to discrimination, despite their employment experience, the wisdom of science and medicine, and the mandate of the law.”

In addition to the organizations coming forward to protest Cirque du Soleil, individuals from across the country have signed a web-based petition and written letters to Cirque’s leadership. While the organized campaign seeks to educate Cirque du Soleil rather than boycott the company, dozens of individuals from the San Francisco area and elsewhere say they won’t attend Cirque’s performance because of the company’s HIV discrimination. One Bay Area resident, Sylvia Sokol, requested a refund for “Alegira” tickets she was holding for Dec. 20, writing to Cirque that she “cannot continue to support your company if you treat people in such a discriminatory fashion. Please let me know as soon as possible how to return my tickets to receive my money back.” Cirque du Soleil responded, saying she didn’t need to mail the tickets because the company had simply refunded the charge back to her credit card and canceled the tickets.

In an attempt at damage control last week, Cirque du Soleil began 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.” In the letter, Cirque du Soleil senior staffer Renee-Claude Menard says Cusick was fired “solely for safety reasons.” 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. Mainstream medical, scientific and athletic organizations say that athletes with HIV should not be restricted from performing or competing.

“Cirque du Soleil just doesn’t get it,” Adams said. “Clearly, they need an education, and that’s exactly what they’re getting from organizations and individuals around the country.”

In addition to community action at the San Francisco show Thursday evening 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). A package of materials for the “Discrimination: Another Side of Cirque du Soleil” campaign - including printable leaflets and post-cards, petitions and other resources - is online at www.LambdaLegal.org.

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Contact: Fred Shank, 212/809-8585 ext. 267


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