Stigmatization and Discrimination

Dec. 1 is World AIDS Day, when the planet’s attention is drawn to the pandemic that, whether we know it or not, plagues us all. Right now, I want to target one specific area that is important for each of us to consider.

In addition to remembering those who have died from AIDS and thanking the selfless individuals and organizations that dedicate themselves to serving people living with HIV and AIDS and working to find a cure, WAD exists to remind us of the unjust stigmatization and discrimination faced by those who have the virus and the disease. One current example that illustrates the importance of this is a federal case involving gymnast Matthew Cusick and the Cirque du Soleil. I wrote about the story for Open Source Politics on Nov. 17.

Today, an open letter from Aaron Baldwin arrived in my inbox, and I thought it was a worthwhile story to share here as we mark the occasion of World AIDS Day. Take a read, and if so moved, take a stand.

If Cirque du Soleil thought they could simply fire a gymnast, solely on the grounds of his HIV status and that nobody would notice… they were very gravely mistaken. As one organized and concerned community, we have begun to make this point very clear to Cirque. We continue to tell Cirque du Soleil that the discrimination against people with HIV/AIDS is wrong and that it will NOT just go unanswered.

Lambda Legal, dozens of national and international groups, professional athletes, HIV/AIDS medical experts and many others will be continuing our protest efforts… at all future Cirque du Soleil’s performances locations around the World. The San Francisco protests were just the beginning of a very broad-based campaign, which was developed by both Lambda Legal and San Francisco human rights activist Aaron E. Baldwin (myself). Our protest campaign, which was launched on November 6th 2003, in association with ever growing and powerful alliance of HIV/AIDS and other human rights groups. The Cusick campaign is called “Discrimination: Another Side of Cirque du Soleil.”

These protests are a testament of the public support for the United States federal discrimination complaint, that Lambda Legal filed in July 2003, against Cirque du Soleil and on behalf of my good friend Matthew Cusick. Cusick who alleges “he was fired because he has HIV.” Although Cirque’s own doctors had cleared Cusick to be able to safely perform, Cirque du Soleil management told Cusick that “because he has HIV the company would not continue to employ him.”

In an attempt at public relations damage control, Cirque du Soleil’s Director of Communications, Renée-Claude Ménard, began sending email responses to the public. These emails admit that Cirque had fired Matthew Cusick because of his HIV status… but they claim that their decision was not “discrimination.”

An excerpt:

Contrary to the allegations, Cirque du Soleil has not discriminated against this particular acrobat. Our decision was premised upon our concern for the safety and well-being of our artists, employees and patrons. That is always our foremost priority. In that spirit, at all times, we must assess any and all risks that could compromise someone’s safety.

This has been a very difficult decision for Cirque du Soleil, because we support many HIV-related educational programs and fundraising efforts, and have contributed extensively to these causes for many years. We are also very sensitive to respecting individual rights and liberties.

Now my good friend Matthew Cusick, and the other 46 million HIV infected human beings, need your help. Please sign the Lambda Legal Web-based petition. All of the signatures and notes that are collected (from over 40+ countries so far) will be sent directly to Cirque du Soleil’s executive management. The first group of these petitions will be delivered to Cirque du Soleil on World AIDS Day, on Monday Dec. 1, 2003. So please do sign the petition today, and if you feel comfortable… would you also ask your friends and families to sign it. Thank you!

Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Case Report:


Cusick said that he had disclosed the fact that he is HIV-positive, to Cirque du Soleil shortly after being hired in July 2002. He then underwent several medical evaluations and he was found to be in “good health” and considered to be “fully able to perform” with Cirque. However, shortly before he was to begin performing in the company’s Las Vegas show “Mystere,” Cirque called him in the Human Resources office and handed him a letter, which stated that Cirque was terminating his employment. It went on to state that his HIV-positive status “will likely pose a direct threat of harm to others, particularly in the case of future injury” (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 7/17). Cirque also said in a public statement, “We believed the risk of exposing fellow artists, technicians and/or spectators to HIV as a consequence of injurious physical contact was too great” (San Francisco Chronicle, 11/20).


In July, the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a federal discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Montreal-based Cirque on behalf of Cusick. Hayley Gorenberg, Matthew Cusick’s attorney, said that Cusick was denied the job “not because of sound science or rational concern for other employees but because of unfounded fear” (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 7/17). Cusick is considering seeking reinstatement of his contract and damages, and he also wants Cirque to “educate the public” and the company about discrimination against people with HIV, the Chronicle reports. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in the past that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects people living with HIV, but that an employer’s obligation to a disabled employee is limited if an employee “poses a risk to himself or to coworkers,” according to labor lawyers.


Cirque du Soleil spokesperson Renée-Claude Ménard said that the casting department had offered Cusick a position as a “catcher” — which is considered a risky role — in the show, because the casting director was not aware of Cusick’s HIV status. Menard said that because coaches were present, but there was no audience during the time of Cusick’s training for the show, the company’s “perceived risk” was reduced, as a means of explaining why Cirque did not fire Cusick until just three days before he was set to perform in Las Vegas, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Menard said that Cusick is eligible for other jobs with the troupe, adding that the company has other employees who are HIV-positive in less risky positions. Cusick said that the company never offered him any other positions, according to the SF Chronicle.

The American Medical Society for Sports Medicine and the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine in a joint statement said, that the risks of sports-related HIV transmission are low, but the theoretical chance of HIV transmission is “not zero,” adding, “Based on current medical and epidemiological information, HIV infection alone is insufficient grounds to prohibit athletic competition.”

Raymond Wheeler, an employment and labor practice lawyer in San Francisco, said that Cirque must be able to demonstrate a “real risk” of HIV transmission, not “just hypothetical situations,” according to the SF Chronicle.

The EEOC is expected to complete its investigation within six months, at which time it could mediate a settlement between the two parties or Cusick can sue Cirque, the Chronicle reports.

Lambda Legal is handling the planning for Cirque’s show traveling to Atlanta, New York, Orange County, CA and Miami; Aaron Baldwin is handling the planning for their international shows in London, Amsterdam, Seville and Milan.

I thank you in advance for your support.


Aaron E. Baldwin

PS – As I have said in the past, “I encourage everyone to continue supporting all of the very talented men and women performers, who make up the casts of all the amazing productions, which is Cirque du Soleil! This issue of HIV discrimination should not be their burden to carry, for it truly belongs upon the shoulders of Cirque’s management.

Discrimination against HIV-positive people, such as this alleged incident involving Cirque du Soleil, does happen. This is real. On this World AIDS Day, let us commit ourselves to making this inhumanity a thing of the past.

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4 thoughts on “Stigmatization and Discrimination

  1. A Brief Cirque du Soleil Protest Update – Written By: Aaron Baldwin

    Approximately 50 to 70 of us gathered outside the baseball stadium, last Thursday night, to protest Cirque du Soleil’s alleged discrimination of Matthew Cusick. We passed out leaflets, gave out stickers (for people to wear into the show), held up our signs and we got really loud.

    What completely blew my mind, more than anything Thursday night? It was just how many people, who upon seeing Matthew Cusick there in the flesh, decided that they could not go inside to see the show.

    Some simply turned around and went back home. Several actually took the time to share their support with Matthew directly, before they left and a few others actually took up picket signs and joined the other protestors.

    Matthew was amazed by all the support, that he made it a point to personally thank everyone who came out to the protest himself.

    Matthew was interviewed by all the major television news shows. So when you consider that, along with his stunning good looks and chiseled eight pack abs (Yes, 8 pk abs)… it should be no big surprise that he was recognized by everyone last weekend in San Francisco.

    Every time someone came up to him and said something like, “I think your great for standing up for yourself.” Matthew would reply, “Thank you very much, but I am actually standing up for all of us.”

    I am so proud of the City and County of San Francisco’s Human Rights Commission, for their decision to investigate Cirque du Soleil. Additionally, I am also proud of all the caring people throughout the San Francisco community.

    However, what I am most proud of today is “the fact that Matthew Cusick is one of my best friends.”


    Aaron Baldwin

  2. Aaron, thank you for the update! I am glad the SF protest went so well.

    Coincidentally, I visited your web page today, and I have to say that Matthew is very lucky to have you as a friend. Keep up the good work, and tell Matthew that I wish him all good luck in obtaining justice and getting to finally live out his dream.

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