Entertainment Industry Speaks Out Against Cirque du Soleils HIV Discrimination

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Nathan Lane, Chita Rivera, Rosie O'Donnell, Bebe Neuwirth, Tony Kushner, Actors' Equity Association, Others Join Lambda Legal in Support of Gymnast Fired for Having HIV
January 20, 2004

(New York, January 20, 2004) - Some of the nation’s most accomplished performers, artists and celebrities are joining a nationwide campaign against Cirque du Soleil for firing a gymnast because he has HIV, Lambda Legal announced today.

Increasing protests and public opposition to Cirque du Soleil stem from a federal discrimination complaint Lambda Legal filed in July against Cirque on behalf of Matthew Cusick, who was fired because he has HIV. Although the company’s own doctors cleared him to safely perform, top executives at Cirque du Soleil contend that he poses a safety risk. In formal filings, letters to the public and dozens of media interviews, Cirque has said that Cusick was fired solely because he has HIV.

“Today, the entertainment community is sending Cirque du Soleil a strong and clear message that HIV discrimination is unacceptable,” said Michael Adams, Director of Education & Public Affairs at Lambda Legal. “Cirque du Soleil is on the wrong side of the law and stands in direct opposition to a growing consensus in the entertainment industry. Today, some of our nation’s best and brightest performing arts voices stand against Cirque du Soleil because people with HIV can safely perform and shouldn’t be relegated to desk jobs just because they have HIV.”

The supporters of the campaign against Cirque du Soleil announced by Lambda Legal today include: Nathan Lane (Tony and Emmy award-winning actor and singer, currently starring in The Producers on Broadway); Chita Rivera (award-winning actress and singer for the last 45 years, who recently received the Kennedy Center Honors); Rosie O’Donnell (six-time Emmy Award-winning actress, producer and former talk-show host); Bebe Neuwirth (Emmy and Tony award-winning television, film and theater actress, singer and dancer); Tony Kushner (Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Angels in America); B.D. Wong (award-winning television, film and theater actor); and the Actors’ Equity Association (the first American actor union, founded in 1913, which is one of the most influential performing arts organizations in the nation, representing more than 45,000 members working on theatrical stages nationwide). Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and Dancers Responding to AIDS were among the first organizations to support the campaign against Cirque du Soleil.

“The story of Matthew Cusick’s firing by Cirque du Soleil is only the most recent chapter in the long, dismal history of discrimination, but it’s especially shocking - and disgraceful - to find bigotry and ignorance about the AIDS epidemic manifest in 2004 by an organization with so many connections to the performing arts,” Kushner said in a statement released today by Lambda Legal.

Despite Cirque du Soleil’s written claims that it fired Cusick after extensive training for a highly choreographed show because its has an obligation to avoid “known safety hazards,” Lambda Legal AIDS Project Director Hayley Gorenberg, who represents Cusick, said, “There has never been a case of a performer or an athlete transmitting HIV during a performance or competition.”

Dozens of other artists, actors, playwrights and entertainers are joining the campaign against Cirque du Soleil, Lambda Legal said. They include Michael Kearns, the first openly HIV-positive actor in Hollywood (who has appeared in dozens of television shows, movies and plays, including Body Double and The Waltons). “Cirque du Soleil’s actions are disturbingly ignorant, shockingly inhumane and decidedly illegal. When I first came out as HIV-positive, this is the kind of discrimination many people expected to see. But today, in Cirque du Soleil’s own field, there’s a consensus that this discrimination is wrong,” Kearns said in a statement released by Lambda Legal.

Moises Kaufman (award-winning author of The Laramie Project); Tim Miller (award-winning author and playwright, and one of the “NEA Four” who fought right-wing attempts to strip federal funding from controversial artwork); Chad Allen (actor, formerly starring in the hit television series Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman); and Rod McKuen (best-selling author, singer and song-writer) also joined the campaign today, along with best-selling authors and community leaders Betty Berzon, Malcolm Boyd, Bernard Cooper, Sam Harris, Cleve Jones and Mark Thompson.

As Lambda Legal’s federal discrimination claim on behalf of Cusick proceeds, the campaign against Cirque du Soleil has intensified in recent weeks with protests outside Cirque shows in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and another protest (which Cusick will attend) set for Thursday night outside Cirque’s performance of “Varekai” in Orange County, California. Several thousand people have signed petitions and sent letters to Cirque du Soleil to complain about Cusick’s firing. Cirque du Soleil has come under fire from local governments in recent weeks, as well, with the San Francisco Human Rights Commission launching its own discrimination investigation and the Los Angeles City Attorney writing a strongly worded letter to Cirque du Soleil’s founder and CEO, Guy Laliberte, to express concern.

Over the last two months, a wide range of leading local, state and national groups - including HIV/AIDS organizations, LGBT groups, athletic associations, labor organizations, medical groups and others - have joined the campaign against Cirque du Soleil. Some of them include: the National Association of People with AIDS; Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays; the National Center for Lesbian Rights; the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association; Pride at Work, AFL-CIO; The Project to Eliminate Homophobia in Sport; International Action Center; the San Francisco AIDS Foundation; the AIDS Services Foundation of Orange County; and dozens of others.

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). Read more information in our package of materials for the “Discrimination: Another Side of Cirque du Soleil” campaign - including printable leaflets, petitions and other resources.

Contact: Eric Ferrero, 212/809-8585 ext. 227; 888/987-1984


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