In Response to City Investigation, Cirque du Soleil Says It Will Hire People with HIV as Dishwashers and Ushers, but not for Coveted Performer Positions

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Lambda Legal, which represents a top-notch gymnast who Cirque fired because he has HIV, says Cirque's response to San Francisco Human Rights Commission is 'shockingly ignorant'
December 17, 2003

(San Francisco, December 17, 2003) — After publicly admitting for months that it fired a top-notch gymnast solely because he has HIV, Cirque du Soleil told the San Francisco Human Rights Commission that some positions that don't involve bodily contact are suitable for people with HIV – such as dishwashers, food and beverage staff, office assistants, prep cooks, ushers and merchandise “hawkers.”

“Even 20 years ago, Cirque du Soleil's comments would be suspect. Today, they are shockingly ignorant,” said Hayley Gorenberg, Lambda Legal's AIDS Project Director, who represents gymnast Matthew Cusick, who Cirque fired because he has HIV. “If Cirque du Soleil ran the Lakers in the 1990s, Magic Johnson would have been transferred to wash dishes in the stadium restaurant after he disclosed his HIV status.”

Cirque's position was made public today in a five-page letter the company filed with the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, which launched a formal investigation last month because Cirque leases public property for its local show. With respect to its show in San Francisco, Cirque said that it contracts with temporary staffing agencies and “there are many employment positions that would be suited to an individual with HIV.” Cirque went on to say, “These positions include dishwashers, dining room attendants, prep cooks, box office staff, box office assistants, ushers, hosts/hostesses, food and beverage staff, public sales assistants, merchandising staff and hawkers. Any one of these positions could be filled by an individual with HIV because these jobs do not involve constant bodily contact with others and a high degree of potential injury with possible bodily fluid exposure.” Cirque also claimed that it has offered employment to Cusick since terminating him days before he was set to start performing, but neglected to specify that it continues refusing Cusick a job as a performer.

“We've always said Cirque du Soleil is illegally keeping people with HIV out of certain jobs, despite sound science and common sense, and now Cirque has confirmed that. Whatever Cirque's formal policies are, it blocks people with HIV from positions where they can safely perform, and that's discrimination,” Gorenberg said. “There has never been a case of an athlete transmitting HIV during performance or competition. Our client's dream job is to be a performer, not a dishwasher. Because he's qualified to be a performer and can do that job safely, that's the job he should have.”

Lambda Legal represents Cusick, who was fired by Cirque earlier this year 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. Lambda Legal and community leaders launched a national campaign against Cirque du Soleil earlier this year with protests at Cirque shows in several cities and a nationwide petition drive. Next month, the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission in Nevada is set to conclude its investigation of Cirque in response to Lambda Legal's federal discrimination complaint. That filing, which ignited the current controversy, is unrelated to the current proceedings before the San Francisco Human Rights Commission.

In a letter to the public, Cirque du Soleil has claimed that Cusick was fired “solely for safety reasons,” but that such action is not “discrimination.” 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.

Following successful protests in November at Cirque du Soleil shows in Los Angeles and San Francisco, community members will protest outside Cirque's “Verekai” show in Orange County once the show opens Jan. 16. Protests are also planned at upcoming shows in Atlanta and New York. Earlier this month, Lambda Legal sent Cirque du Soleil notes and letters from more than 2,000 people nationwide who signed onto a petition that continues to circulate online (at www.LambdaLegal.org ) and in communities.

A growing number of organizations and individuals are joining 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); 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.

Contact: Fred Shank; 212/809-8585, x267; fshank@lambdalegal.org


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