Southern California Outcry Against Cirque du Soleil for HIV Discrimination Mounts, as Groups Join Protest Set for Jan. 22 and L.A. City Attorney Speaks Out

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Groups in Los Angeles, Orange County and Long Beach join Lambda Legal's protest at Cirque show in Costa Mesa; L.A. City Attorney expresses concern
January 15, 2004

(Los Angeles, January 15, 2004) -Cirque du Soleil, which is set to open a month-long show in Orange County tomorrow night, is under increasing fire in Southern California for HIV discrimination, with several leading local groups joining an ongoing campaign against the company, a protest set for Jan. 22 outside the Cost Mesa show and the Los Angeles City Attorney speaking out directly to Cirque’s founder and CEO, Lambda Legal said today.

The protests are the latest in a nationwide outcry stemming 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.

“Like other communities across the country, Southern California is committed to holding Cirque du Soleil accountable for this discrimination,” said Hayley Gorenberg, Director of Lambda Legal’s AIDS Project, who represents Cusick. “When Cirque fired our client, they thought he would just go away -- but they’re learning that public outcry about this discrimination will follow them all over the country.”

Today, Lambda Legal announced that a range of influential organizations have joined the campaign against Cirque du Soleil and will participate in protests next Thursday night outside Cirque’s “Varekai” performance in Costa Mesa, which Cusick will also attend. They include: The AIDS Services Foundation of Orange County, the Orange County Gay and Lesbian Center, the Gay and Lesbian Center of Long Beach, International Action Center Los Angeles, the National Lawyers Guild of Los Angeles, The Elections Committee for the County of Orange (ECCO), and Pride At Work AFL-CIO.

This week, Los Angeles City Attorney Rockard J. Delgadillo wrote to Cirque du Soleil’s founder and CEO, Guy Laliberte, to express concern about Cusick’s case and offer to educate Laliberte about HIV transmission. In his letter, Delgadillo said that if Cirque fired Cusick solely because he has HIV (which Cirque has repeatedly admitted is the case) then, “Cirque du Soleil has undermined years and years of public health efforts to educate employers that workplace safety - even in the world of sports and entertainment - is dependent on knowledgeable, consistent, vigilant workplace safety protocols, not discrimination against those living with HIV.”

The Southern California protests and Delgadillo’s letter come just weeks after similar protests outside other Cirque shows in San Francisco and Los Angeles. In late November, the San Francisco Human Rights Commission launched a formal investigation into Cirque because it was leasing public property, and local law prohibits companies with city contracts from discriminating against people with HIV. That investigation, which is expected to conclude in the next few weeks, could result in fines against Cirque du Soleil or an order banning the company from city contracts.

In formal letters and messages to the public, Cirque du Soleil admits that it fired Cusick solely because he has HIV, but claims that such action is not “discrimination.” Cirque du Soleil says Cusick was fired “solely for safety reasons.” In response to the San Francisco Human Rights Commission’s investigation, Cirque said that people with HIV are eligible for employment in positions that do not involve bodily contact.

“Matthew Cusick was fired from his dream job despite his qualifications and training, and contrary to sound science and medicine. He is clearly qualified to do this job, and he can do it safely,” Gorenberg said. “There has never been a case of an athlete or entertainer transmitting HIV during competition or performance.”

Pride At Work, AFL-CIO, which represents LGBT workers and union members nationwide, joined the campaign against Cirque today and will mobilize union members for next Thursday’s protest. “We are proud of the labor movement’s involvement in fighting AIDS-based discrimination,” said Marta Ames, Executive Director for Pride At Work, AFL-CIO. “We condemn outright the bigotry and ignorance reflected by the Cirque du Soleil treatment of Matthew Cusick, and we join with Lambda Legal and a host of other organizations and individuals who demand that he be reinstated. In the 21st century, there is no place for the ignorant and petty actions of the Cirque du Soleil management.”

According to James Lafferty, Executive Director of the National Lawyers Guild in Los Angeles, "the claim that a circus performer who is HIV-positive poses a risk to his co-workers is ignorant and woefully outdated. It flies in the face of modern medical, legal, and moral thinking. The only ‘risk’ in this case is the risk that Cirque’s baseless claim will lead to more discrimination against people who are HIV-positive."

Other organizations supporting the campaign against Cirque du Soleil include: the Stop AIDS Project; the National Association of People with AIDS; Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays; Horizons Foundation, the National Center for Lesbian Rights; the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association; and Being Alive/People with AIDS Action Coalition. Rudy Galindo, a former U.S. men’s figure-skating champion who was one of the first major U.S. athletes to continue competing on the world stage after disclosing his HIV status, supports the campaign, along with other athletes and entertainers.

In addition to community action at Cirque’s Orange County show on the evening of January 22, Lambda Legal and local leaders will protest 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 for the “Discrimination: The Other Side of Cirque du Soleil” campaign - including printable leaflets, petitions and other resources. # # #

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


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