Major Athletes, Performers and AIDS Experts Join Growing Outcry Against Cirque du Soleil for HIV Discrimination; Protest Set for Tomorrow Night in San Francisco

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Rudy Galindo, Olympic athletes, pioneering AIDS experts join Lambda Legal and alliance of groups in speaking out against Cirque for firing gymnast with HIV
November 19, 2003

(San Francisco, November 19, 2003) - Several high-profile athletes, performers and AIDS experts - including Olympic competitors and pioneering HIV doctors - have joined growing public protests against Cirque du Soleil for firing a gymnast because he has HIV, Lambda Legal announced today. Local and national groups will join Lambda Legal for a community action outside Cirque du Soleil’s “Alegria” performance in San Francisco tomorrow 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, a gymnast 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.

Today, Lambda Legal said a number of people and groups are joining the effort because athletes and performers with HIV should not be restricted or fired simply because of their HIV status. 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). Athletic and performing organizations have also joined the protest, Lambda Legal announced, and they include: The Project to Eliminate Homophobia in Sport; the San Francisco Fog (a prominent gay men’s rugby team); Broadway CARES/Equity Fights AIDS; and Dancers Responding to AIDS.

“As an athlete who has lived, worked and competed successfully for three years while being treated medically for HIV, I fully support Matthew Cusick, who was wrongfully discriminated against because of having the disease. There are many thousands of Americans with HIV who contribute every day to the betterment of our society, who despite their serious medical problem extend every effort to live full and productive lives,” Rudy Galindo said today. “My sincere hope and prayer is that Cirque du Soleil reconsiders their grossly unfair and heartless decision, and that they reinstate Mr. Cusick immediately - wishing him well and supporting his determination to be the best athlete and entertainer that he can be.” Galindo was one of the first major U.S. athletes to continue competing on the world stage after disclosing his HIV status.

“These athletes, performers and AIDS experts have a powerful voice here. They know first-hand that there’s no real risk of a Cirque du Soleil gymnast transmitting HIV while performing, and they also know all too well what it’s like to be the target of fear and discrimination,” said Michael Adams, Director of Education & Public Affairs at Lambda Legal. “The outcry against Cirque du Soleil is growing by the day, and it’s not going to go away as long as Cirque thinks it’s acceptable to fire someone simply because he has HIV.”

Earlier this month, Lambda Legal and activists launched a broad campaign, starting with protests at Cirque’s show in San Francisco (including a community action tomorrow night, Nov. 20, starting at 6:30 p.m. outside the show at Pac Bell Park), a nationwide petition drive and planned protests in the months ahead at other Cirque shows nationwide.

In an attempt at damage control last week, Cirque du Soleil began 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.

“I’m very disappointed,” said Dr. Paul Volderbing, M.D., of Cirque du Soleil’s position. “I believed we had put this kind of misinformation and HIV discrimination behind us in the 1980s.” Volderbing is the Vice Chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of California San Francisco. He is also the chief of medical service at the San Francisco Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center. Volderbing is a pioneer in HIV/AIDS medical research and practice, and was one of the first doctors to see cases of HIV and AIDS in 1981. Volderbing, who helped secure a number of scientific breakthroughs in treating the disease, was instrumental in establishing dedicated HIV services at San Francisco General Hospital and in other organizations. Dr. John Stansell, M.D., who is the Vice Chairman of the American Academy of HIV Medicine, echoed Volderbing’s concern, saying, “I find myself equally shocked and disappointed.”

Some of the organizations supporting the campaign and tomorrow night’s community action in San Francisco include: 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; 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; the Horizons Foundation; the National Center for Lesbian Rights; Bay Area Physicians for Human Rights; and the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association.

Representatives from several of the groups will speak at tomorrow night’s community action outside the “Alegria” performance. Cusick is traveling to San Francisco to thank the groups and community members for their support, and he will also speak at the community action, Lambda Legal said.

In addition to protest at Cirque’s San Francisco show tomorrow night 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). Get more information with our package of materials on the campaign - including printable leaflets, petitions and other resources.

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


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