Matthew Cusick performing with Anti-Gravity at a 2004 Broadway Bares benefit. (photo: John Giddings) Update: Matthew Cusick performing with New York's Anti-Gravity at Gay Games VII
HIV and Sports
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Update: Nov. 20, 2003Athletes who support Matthew and Lambda Legal's Case
Rudy Galindo (figure skater)
David Pichler (Olympic diver)
Patrick Jeffrey (Olympic diving coach)
Eric Anderson (track coach)
Doctors and GLBT & AIDS Organizations
The Catch TrapHIV-positive Gymnast Fired by Cirque du Soleil
by Jim Provenzano
Bay Area Reporter / SportsComplex.org
Nov. 13, 2003
Even as a young boy, Matthew Cusick wanted to be a gymnast. Like anyone in his sport, joining the world-famous Cirque du Soleil became a dream come true -- at first.
Born in Alexandria, Virginia, the 32 year old’s early gymnastics training led to accomplishments that brought him an invitation to join a team in the Washington, DC area, where he’s lived since age 12. Competitive gymnastics, however, weren’t to become a part of his life.
"At the time I was a little burned out from doing it," said Cusick in a phone interview from Washington, DC. "I wanted to take a breather after high school."
Coaching became the focus of his career, training about 20 kids a day at a girl’s gymnastics school in Laurel, Maryland, for fourteen years.
"Several students went on to college, and got scholarships," said Cusick with pride. "I’m still friends with a lot of them."
During that time, Cusick learned that he was HIV-positive, but kept it a secret. He also wasn’t out at work, "because it wasn’t something that I thought needed to be brought to my career."
Although he knew a few other gay male gymnasts, he said that the sport is not particularly easy for gay men to be out.
"There is that stereotype, based on the aesthetic," he said of presumptions about muscular male gymnasts. "It’s hard to say how many gay gymnasts there are."
While younger gymnasts fear coming out, the lack of a community of gay and lesbian gymnasts may be based on the difficulty of training later in adult life.
"You can’t just haphazardly go into it, or not train for several days," he said.
Cusick stopped coaching two years ago, and took a job as a bartender at the Washington DC gay club Cobalt.
"I was still training, but not a lot. I was trying to plan my life, and pursue some other career choices."
He began working as a personal trainer when he heard about auditions for Cirque du Soleil. The company has eight shows in three continents, which are seen by millions each year.
"You see them, and it’s amazing," Cusick said. "I thought that would be great, but never pursued it before. I didn’t think I would make it."
But after sending an audition videotape, in March 2001, Cusick was asked to attend their Orlando, Florida tryouts.
Halfway through the acrobatics audition, among 60-90 aspiring performers, Cirque directors took him aside and mentioned a specific role in one of their shows that would suit him.
"They pretty much accepted me halfway through the audition."
In February 2002, he was invited attend July training sessions at Cirque’s headquarters in Montreal, Canada.
DREAM COME TRUE
"In the first medical screening, which was an evaluation, they check if you have a full range of motion, bones previously broken," Cusick said. "They didn’t want you to train on something that hasn’t healed."
It was there that Cusick voluntarily revealed his HIV-positive status. "It came up naturally in the conversation," he said.
The company’s medical examiner confirmed that it would not be a problem. At the time, and since then, Cusick took the now-standard cocktail medication. He continues to have an undetectable viral load and a high T-cell count.
After finishing the training, Cusick returned home, feeling exited, but also concerned that he didn’t have a signed contract, but was called back to Montreal for more training.
"This was more about getting to know about the different acts, the choreography, and the harder tricks," he said of the daily nine-hour rehearsals. Members of the separate show, Zumanity, were also present.
In March, 2003, he was later called to join the Mystere cast in Las Vegas, and was offered a contract to replace another performer in show. Scheduled for two weeks of learning choreography, and having costumes fitted, Cusick was set to leave directly for Las Vegas.
"I could have flown there on my own energy," he joked.
But three days before he was supposed to leave, he was called into the office of Cirque’s Vice President of Creation. The Human Resources Director of the International headquarters was also present.
Cusick was shocked. "They told me that they were letting me go."
After nearly an hour-long "rather emotional" discussion, Cusick was forced to turn in his ID badge, and leave the building.
"I was stunned. I didn’t know what to do. After that, for a few more meetings I had to attend, I had to report to the front desk and have them come and get me. I could never get in again."
Cusick said that Cirque officials told him to remain silent about his dismissal. "They said they wanted to protect me."
Although his role was not as interactive as others were, Cusick had made friends among the new cast.
"People saw something was wrong by my demeanor," he said. "I was not myself. I was in shock, anyway. It was hard to comprehend."
Cusick stayed in Montreal for five days, before returning to Washington, DC, still stunned by his dismissal.
"It all just came crashing down."
He called Lambda Legal Defense’s New York offices. "I knew that they were a great organization that helped the LGBT and HIV-positive community."
Hayley Gorenberg, Lambda Legal’s AIDS Project director, is also Cusick’s attorney. In July 2003, Lambda filed the complaint on Cusick’s behalf.
"We did try to resolve it with Cirque before the complaint was filed," she said. "But they refused to reconsider."
With four resident companies based in the US, Gorenberg said that an American subsidiary of Cirque is involved in the case.
Cirque du Soleil’s public relations may have taken artistic license with the case.
After having run a mere two-paragraph news item about Cusick in July, the Nov. 11 Advocate ran a lavish cover story and picture-filled feature about other gay Cirque performers, with no mention of Cusick’s case.
Advocate editor Bruce Steele told a reporter for The Washington Blade that Cusick’s discrimination claim ‘did not pertain to the article’s focus on gay dancers.’
Cirque du Soleil also bought full-page ads in that issue of The Advocate, and other gay publications, including the Bay Area Reporter.
Of Cirque’s reported gay-friendly stance, Cusick said, "I don’t know how a company can claim to be gay-friendly and discriminate against HIV-positive people."
One Cirque representative contended that Cusick was offered a solo position that wouldn’t be what the company considered "a safety risk."
"No," Cusick stated. "They did not offer me that. Why would I not accept something like that? I wanted to be with Cirque and perform."
Gorenberg said that Cirque’s concerns are unfounded, as no documented case of sports-related HIV transmission has ever been reported. "Every sports medicine association, the NBA, the US Olympic committee, the American Association of Pediatrics, and other organizations dealing with professional athletes and students, come to the same conclusion; there is no reason to test athletes, nor exclude them from competition, if someone might be HIV-positive."
Boxing, which is categorized as a 'blood sport,' is the only exception, but not at all applicable to trapeze artists. "The experience of millions of people over the decades we've experienced HIV contribute to and support the many, many sports medicine policies that say athletes with HIV can perform safely and should be allowed to compete," Gorenberg said.
Cusick’s years of experience belie any undue concern. "If you do have an injury, you go to the doctor," he said. "You don’t just keep going on, no matter what."
While dealing with his new fame as an unexpected symbol of AIDS discrimination, Cusick said, "I’m trying to get my life back together," which includes returning to his work as a trainer.
Even at work, he said, "People have come up to me to show support for what I’m going through, and to let me know that I’m not the only person out there dealing with it."
Yet despite the publicity, Cusick said, "It’s not a pride sort of thing. I’ve been dealing with HIV for most of my adult life. It is kind of scary because there is still discrimination involved, not just from employers, but by other people."
(For information on Lambda Legal Defense Community Actions, CLICK HERE.)