Federal Agency Levels Most Serious Determination Against Cirque du Soleil on HIV Discrimination Charge, Lambda Legal Says

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In a major development, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission concludes its investigation of Cirque du Soleil for firing a gymnast with HIV
January 30, 2004

(Los Angeles, January 30, 2004) - The federal government’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which for months has been investigating Cirque du Soleil for firing performer Matthew Cusick because he has HIV, concluded that Cirque likely engaged in illegal discrimination. The EEOC’s Los Angeles District Office handled the investigation and issued the determination made public today, and will now attempt to resolve the matter before it reaches court, according to Lambda Legal, which represents Cusick.

“This is a major development. The federal government has looked very carefully at Cirque du Soleil’s actions, and its investigation confirmed there is evidence that Cirque engaged in unlawful discrimination,” said Hayley Gorenberg, Director of Lambda Legal’s AIDS Project. Gorenberg explained that EEOC investigations don’t reach beyond determining whether there’s “cause to believe” an employer discriminated. “This is the most serious determination the government can reach at this level. It’s a very serious finding based on months of investigation.”

The EEOC determination said the “investigation reveals reasonable cause to believe that [Cirque du Soleil] discriminated against [Cusick] when it discharged him because of his disability, record of disability, and being regarded as disabled.” The finding says the Americans with Disabilities Act forbids such discrimination.

“For the last eight months, we have tried to get Cirque du Soleil to understand the seriousness of firing someone simply because he has HIV. At every juncture, we’ve been met with claims that are based on fear and ignorance instead of science and medicine. We are very encouraged that the federal government’s findings will force Cirque to finally take this seriously,” Gorenberg said.

Lambda Legal filed the federal discrimination complaint with the EEOC in July 2003 against Cirque du Soleil on behalf of Cusick, who was fired because he has HIV. Before filing the complaint, Lambda Legal attempted to persuade Cirque to change its position and policy voluntarily. Although the company’s own doctors had cleared him to safely perform for the Las Vegas-based show “Mystere,” Cirque du Soleil management told Cusick that because he has HIV he is a “known safety hazard” and the company would not continue to employ him. Cusick described the Cirque du Soleil position as a “dream job” for any gymnast.

In a press release issued last night by Cirque du Soleil, the company said, “Cirque du Soleil will offer to re-integrate Matthew Cusick as a performer,” during the EEOC-mediated discussions. Cirque has offered employment to Cusick in recent months, only to later explain that he could not have performance-based positions because of his HIV status, Gorenberg said.

“While this is nothing new from Cirque, we’re looking forward to serious discussions now that the federal government has called Cirque to the table. Those conversations will include a focus on Cirque company-wide policies and practices,” Gorenberg said.

Lambda Legal and community leaders launched an education campaign against Cirque du Soleil late last year, which has intensified in recent weeks with protests outside Cirque shows in San Francisco, Los Angeles and 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.

Earlier this month, some of the nation’s most accomplished performers, artists and celebrities spoke out against Cirque du Soleil for firing Cusick. They include Nathan Lane, Chita Rivera, Rosie O’Donnell, Bebe Neuwirth and Tony Kushner. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Angels in America Kushner said, “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.”

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.

Lambda Legal has scheduled protests of Cirque du Soleil performances in a number of cities later this year, including Atlanta (March 25 through April 11, 2004) and New York (May 6 through June 6, 2004). Read our package of materials for the “Discrimination: The Other Side of Cirque du Soleil” campaign - including printable leaflets, petitions and other resources.

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


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