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Cirque du Soleil Offers to Rehire Acrobat Fired Over Having HIV

Times Staff Writer

Cirque du Soleil will offer to rehire an acrobat fired by the Montreal-based circus last year because he is HIV-positive. The circus also plans to draft an anti-discrimination policy with help from the San Francisco Human Rights Commission that protects the rights of all qualified HIV-positive athletes to perform, company and commission officials said Friday.

Cirque announced its decision to rehire 32-year-old Matthew Cusick in a brief statement shortly after the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determined there was reasonable cause to believe that Cirque had discriminated against Cusick because of his disability.

The determination sets the stage for a federal lawsuit against the circus if mediation through the federal panel fails.

But a Cirque spokeswoman said Friday that the firm had all but changed its position before the panel issued its determination when extensive research assured the circus that the risks of HIV transmission during an accident were infinitesimal.

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“We’re basically saying there are no restrictions now for anyone with HIV at Cirque,” spokeswoman Renee-Claude Menard said. “It’s been a learning process.... We’re very confident now that the risks are minimal.”

Cusick, 32, voluntarily disclosed his HIV status to doctors during a four-month training period with the circus, known worldwide for its aerial acrobatics and surreal beauty. The doctors cleared him as healthy and able to perform, and Cirque offered him a contract as an acrobatic “catcher” in the Las Vegas production of “Mystere.” But officials abruptly terminated his contract days before he was to begin, telling him that he posed a risk to other performers as well as the audience.

Menard said Cirque will offer Cusick the same job when it begins mediation in the coming weeks.

In addition to the federal complaint, the case triggered protests at Cirque performances in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Costa Mesa, as well as a separate investigation by the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, which alleged discrimination by the company on city-owned land. AIDS activists emphasized that there were no medical reasons for Cusick to be barred from performing and warned that Cirque’s position could jeopardize decades of public education to remove the stigma of HIV in the workplace.

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Cusick expressed relief at the commission’s finding, but said that neither he nor his attorney had been told of the job offer or the company’s change of policy.

“I’m very excited that the EEOC is standing behind me on this,” said Cusick, who watched a lifelong dream evaporate last year when he was fired and has been slowly rebuilding his personal training business in Maryland. “I hope that no one else will have to go through the same thing that I’ve gone through over the past year or year and a half.”

Cusick’s attorney, Hayley Gorenberg of the gay civil rights organization Lambda Legal, said the finding “clearly supports what we were saying about discrimination.”

In addition to a job as a performer, Gorenberg said, she believes Cusick is due damages for what he has suffered, as well as assurances that “Cirque has the proper policies and training so they don’t visit this kind of discrimination on anybody else.”

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Larry Brinkin, lead negotiator with the San Francisco Human Rights Commission’s HIV division, confirmed Friday that Cirque has agreed to do exactly that. The commission’s complaint against the circus for discriminating against HIV-positive employees in violation of municipal law triggered a round of soul-searching discussions, Brinkin said.

Several company vice presidents and a Cirque attorney met for three hours with commission negotiators last month. “We tried to tell them that their understanding of the risk was simply incorrect,” said Brinkin, whose staff gathered medical information on behalf of the circus. “They were very interested.... I could see minds being changed as I spoke.”

Brinkin said Cirque Vice President Marc Gagnon will return to San Francisco on Tuesday to begin drafting a written anti-discrimination policy. “I can clearly say that they are reversing their position, and that all of the positions at Cirque du Soleil, including the position that Matthew was [hired to perform], are definitely open to people with HIV. That’s what we needed to hear in San Francisco.”

Cirque’s admission that it fired Cusick due to his HIV status prompted concern from people across the country, including Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, who wrote to company officials offering the legal expertise of the city’s AIDS/HIV discrimination unit -- the first of its kind in the country.

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On Friday, the unit’s supervising attorney, David Schulman, expressed “appreciation that Cirque has educated itself and turned around on this issue.”


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