10 Years After Landmark Case, Matthew Cusick Is Still Speaking Out Against HIV Bias

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November 11, 2013
Matthew Cusick

Join us on Thursday for Lambda Legal’s Fall for Equality cocktail party, featuring remarks by Matthew Cusick.

A decade later, Matthew Cusick still remembers every detail of what he calls “the worst day of my life.”

Cirque du Soleil had hired the former competitive gymnast for one of its Las Vegas shows, Mystère. He spent months training, and Cirque’s doctors approved him as a healthy athlete, fully capable of performing in a physically demanding role.

But shortly before he was scheduled to start performing, Cirque fired him because he has HIV. Counter to established fact about HIV, Cirque said Cusick posed a health risk or safety threat to fellow performers and even the audience. Cirque took away his credentials, and escorted him out of the building.

“It made me feel like I was an outsider,” Cusick recalls, “very isolated, very unwanted.”

He called Lambda Legal’s Help Desk, and in July 2003, we filed a federal discrimination complaint on his behalf. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) started an investigation and found that Cirque du Soleil had likely engaged in illegal discrimination.

“I didn't do it just for me,” Cusick says. “I knew that it was going to benefit a much larger number of people than just me. That was one of my goals when I contacted Lambda Legal.”

Months later, Lambda Legal negotiated a landmark settlement with Cirque du Soleil. Cirque paid a record $600,000 — the largest settlement ever for an HIV discrimination complaint with the EEOC. Cirque also agreed to change its company policy worldwide regarding HIV discrimination and provide its employees with antidiscrimination training.

For Cusick, it was a bittersweet victory. “There was, of course, the high of winning a case and getting justice,” he says. “But it's hard, because you now know that everybody knows your status.”

There seems to be less stigma surrounding HIV than 10 years ago, at least in some circumstances, Cusick says, “but there's still a lot of stigma out there. There's still a lot of terminology used out there that I think needs to be eradicated from our vernacular. Like the word 'clean.' If anybody ever asked me if I was clean, I'd usually tell them, ‘Yes, I shower every day.’”

Though Cusick did not return to Cirque du Soleil, he’s been busy since the settlement. He’s appeared in films and performed as an acrobat and in stage combat at the Metropolitan Opera. And he started a “hand-to-hand” acrobatic act with business and performance partner Ken Berkeley, called KENiMATTix, appearing across the country and around the world. Cusick also teaches and coaches at a circus school in New York City.

Cusick continues to speak out against HIV discrimination — and he encourages others to do the same.

“If you have the ability to, stand up and fight,” he says, “because not only will it help you, it will help other people.”

Meet Matthew Cusick at Lambda Legal’s Fall for Equality Cocktail Party in New York City.

Learn more about Matthew Cusick’s case and about Lambda Legal’s work defending the rights of people with HIV/AIDS.