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The Daring Young Man Off the Flying Trapeze

Fired by Cirque du Soleil, Matthew Cusick Landed on His Feet as an AIDS Activist

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 21, 2004; Page C01

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.

Gymnast Matthew Cusick on the roof of his Manhattan apartment. "It was like I was a piece of trash," he says of his firing by Cirque du Soleil. (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

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 "Mystere," 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.

Cirque du Soleil is a surprising addition to the list of corporations slapped for civil rights abuses. After all, it's one of the most visible exports from our nonviolent, health-care-for-everyone, gay-marriage-legalizing neighbor to the north. Marking its 20th anniversary with shows touring North America, Europe and Japan, Cirque du Soleil still trumpets its origins as a tightknit troupe of street performers.

The outfit has grown to a billion-dollar enterprise through the success of its artsy, high-tech retooling of the whole idea of a circus. Cirque refers to its performers as "artists," top-notch acrobats and contortionists culled from around the world and choreographed into mood-setting, highly theatrical, music-driven productions with such exotic-sounding names as "Dralion," "Quidam" and "Varekai," the last winding up a five-week engagement at RFK Stadium on Sunday.

Its shows are typically edgy and touched with eroticism. One in particular, the Las Vegas spectacle "Zumanity," is a provocative variety show that deals directly with human sexuality. One act involves two men sealing a lusty dance of love with a kiss.

The fact that Cirque lagged behind 21st-century knowledge of HIV is at odds with such a public embrace of homosexuality. Yet Cirque du Soleil is not alone in misunderstanding the virus. Just last week, Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer criticized those with AIDS as "a danger," a statement for which he has been roundly denounced by colleagues and health officials.

Cirque du Soleil says it fired Cusick in the name of public health. In documents released during Cusick's EEOC proceeding, the organization said it was concerned that he could infect another performer. Indeed, in an athletic arena where performers regularly collide, it is easy to picture blood being spilled from a broken nose or split lip.

But as years of study have proved, that's not a realistic picture of how HIV is spread. "Employers letting their imaginations run wild was not the barometer of what the danger on the job was or wasn't," says Hayley Gorenberg, Lambda Legal's AIDS project director, who represented Cusick before the EEOC.

Cusick has been training as a gymnast since he was 5. His dreams, however, were not of the Olympics but of performing onstage. But just where does a gymnast find a job? He tried out at Disney World, auditioned for a European production of "Miss Saigon." Each time the answer was no, and each time he went back to his coaching job at Laurel's Fairland Sports and Aquatic Complex.

His luck changed when he sent a videotape of himself to Cirque in late 2000 and was asked to audition. Halfway through the tryout, Cusick says, Cirque officials "pulled me aside and said, 'We have a part for you.' " But it took a year for them to follow up. In February 2002, he was finally summoned for training. Cusick quit his job, broke up with his boyfriend and moved to Montreal.

His first day there included a medical evaluation, at the end of which Cusick told doctors he was HIV-positive.

They thanked him for his openness, Cusick says, but didn't seem alarmed. The next day he was called in to see another doctor, who asked about his medications. (Following the treatment regimen that has largely transformed HIV from a death sentence to a manageable condition, Cusick takes a daily "cocktail" of several drugs to fight the virus.)

After that, Cusick was cleared for full participation.

"I was like, wow, these people could care less that I'm HIV-positive," Cusick says. "I felt very accepted there."

At the end of four months, Cusick -- like many of the other athletes in training -- was told the circus did not yet have a job for him but would keep his name on file. Cusick returned to Silver Spring and waited. Was this a gentle blow-off? he wondered. He brushed off a friend's fears that his HIV status had scared Cirque away.

A few months later, Cirque called to offer Cusick a job in "Mystere," the resident show of the Treasure Island Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Ecstatic, Cusick flew back to Montreal to learn the part. Three days before he was to fly out to Nevada, he was called into a meeting with the vice president of creation and -- never a good sign -- the human resources director.

Cusick says he was speechless as the Cirque officials told him they were discharging him because he was a danger to other performers. At a second meeting later that day, he says he "channeled a lawyer" and demanded that Cirque put its reasons for firing him in writing.

"I told them they had no clue what they just did to me," Cusick says, his eyes filling with tears as he recalled the meeting. In addition to the pain of a shattered dream, he faced a serious consequence: "You're sending me home without health insurance," he told the Cirque officials -- for Cusick had canceled his health care policy before returning to Montreal.

Celebrities including Nathan Lane, Chita Rivera, Rosie O'Donnell and Bebe Neuwirth spoke out against Cusick's firing. Tony Kushner, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Angels in America," issued a statement deploring the fact that "ignorance about the AIDS epidemic" was practiced "by an organization with so many connections to the performing arts."

Cirque admits it blundered.

Renee-Claude Menard, director of communications at Cirque's corporate headquarters, is spokeswoman on the Cusick case. She spoke at length about the HIV training -- mandated by the EEOC agreement -- that Cirque has put in place.

"We made a mistake and we acknowledge it was a mistake and we don't want to let it happen again," Menard said, adding, "We have changed our policy, of course, so there is no more discrimination with HIV in terms of artists.

"We were overwhelmed, we were stunned" by the lawsuit, Menard continued. "It has woken us up to our new reality."

Acknowledgment of its error notwithstanding, Cirque tightly controls discussion of the issue. Requests to interview Patrick King or Johan Silverhult King, the openly gay couple who share that kiss in their lusty tango in "Zumanity," were denied. Efforts to reach them were unsuccessful.

Instead, a telephone interview with a different member of the "Zumanity" cast was arranged -- with Cirque press representative Callie de Quevedo on the line as well. Joey Arias, who plays the emcee, said he didn't know much about the Cusick case, but he was effusive about Cirque's gay-friendliness.

"Basically Cirque is a promoter of different people and different things," Arias said. "I am gay, I am outrageous, and I've never felt some big thumb pushing me down. Never. They really celebrate sexuality and my being who I am."

And what did he think the corporate reaction would be if he were to contract HIV? "Cirque would be behind me," Arias said -- and de Quevedo, interjecting her thoughts on the question, seemed to agree. "The key would be that you would be supported and the case would be properly examined, but you would feel supported and taken care of," she said.

Thanks to Cusick, they both may well be right.

As for Cusick himself, life didn't turn out the way he'd feared. "I actually thought that coming out so publicly with my HIV status -- I thought I was not going to work again and follow my dream and perform," Cusick says. "Gladly, I was wrong."

An aerial dance troupe called Anti-Gravity heard about Cusick's fight and hired him. He has also performed at Broadway Bares, an annual AIDS benefit, and at the Fire Island Dance Festival.

In the end, what started out as the worst day of his life became a turning point for Cusick -- and also, apparently, for Cirque. Although the troupe offered him his job back after the settlement, Cusick turned it down because, he says, "I couldn't be a supporting member of any company that held ignorance over learned judgment and revenue over people."

Now, in addition to a comfortable bank account, a new job and speaking engagements, Cusick gained a sense of self-awareness he says was missing in his former days as a fun-loving showoff.

Cirque admitted its mistake and is promoting HIV awareness.

The fallout from this is an undramatic but satisfying revelation: The system worked. Science triumphed over ignorance. One man was able to bridge past and present, forcing a big corporation to evolve from outdated thought to 21st-century awareness.

"It's surprising to know the strength you really do have inside yourself," Cusick says, "when you're pushed up against a rock."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company