This article was first published Oct. 21, 2004.
NEW YORK — A year and a half ago, it seemed all of Matthew Cusick’s dreams had come true: The onetime Laurel gymnastics coach was set to return to the high bar in a big, flashy, spotlit way.
If things had gone according to plan, he would be in Las Vegas right now, performing in one of Cirque du Soleil’s resident productions, a grateful member of the Canadian-based circus’s globe-spanning network of artful acrobatic shows.
Instead, Cusick has vaulted from jock to AIDS activist. A natural center of attention — he can turn backflips on demand, and he loves to draw a crowd at the beach flaunting his skills in a Speedo — Cusick nevertheless didn’t want this kind of notice. It’s a change he felt sure would leave him isolated and jobless. But, as Cusick has learned, life can’t always be predicted.
One month after Cirque du Soleil hired him, it fired him. Looking out the window of his Hell’s Kitchen apartment, Cusick still bristles as he recalls his dismissal for being, as he says Cirque officials told him, “a hazard.”
“The way they treated me,” Cusick says, “it was like I was a piece of trash.”
Cusick, 33, is HIV-positive, infected with the virus that causes AIDS, but with none of the symptoms of the full-blown illness. He had disclosed his status to Cirque doctors, who pronounced him fit to work when he was flown to Cirque’s Montreal headquarters for a training camp. It was months later, after Cusick had been given a role and was being fitted for his costume, that the organization’s officials told him his HIV infection was costing him his job.
It’s clear at a glance that Cusick is not your average gymnast. Standing a little more than six feet tall, he has the long, top-heavy build of a water polo player rather than the compact fireplug dimensions of a Paul Hamm. His jeans are cinched tight around a narrow waist, while the sleeves of his black button-down shirt are rolled up to reveal grapefruit-size biceps.
It was Cusick’s combination of towering size, skill and strength that caught Cirque du Soleil’s eye. The Silver Spring native was hired to perform as a “catcher” in the long-running show “Mystère,” grabbing other acrobats out of the air as they flew off their trapezes and whizzed toward him.
But as it turned out, Cusick possessed another kind of strength as well. After his firing, he filed a discrimination complaint against Cirque under the Americans With Disabilities Act, though it meant declaring to the world that he was both gay and infected with HIV.
Cusick won. According to Lambda Legal, the gay rights and HIV advocacy group that represented him, his $600,000 settlement, awarded in April, is the largest award for an HIV discrimination complaint ever negotiated through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
As a result of which, Cusick says with a certain wonder, he has become “the poster boy for HIV.” He’ll be getting the annual “courage award” at the AIDS Walk in Washington Saturday, speaking at the United States Conference on AIDS Sunday in Philadelphia, and making two hops to Indianapolis for appearances there.