Matthew Cusick is a professional performance artist. To call him an aerialist is an oversimplification. Although he is a highly accomplished gymnast who was once invited to be on a competition-level team in Washington, D.C., he has many physical skills and strengths that go beyond the solo work practiced in gymnastics. He is also more than a trapeze artist who catches other people flying through the air. Cusick in conversation often uses the term “balance artist.” His physical stature and strength make him an ideal base in shapes that require one person to hold other performers while they execute stylized shapes.
Given his international-level rating in training, experience, strength and discipline it should come as little surprise that Cusick was accepted into the famous Cirque du Soleil, a company with shows in multiple continents and which entertains millions of spectators each year. In fact, Cirque du Soleil was so impressed with Cusick that they hired him only half-way through his audition in Orlando.
What followed was a rollercoaster, both emotionally and professionally. Cusick went from training young gymnasts and bartending to training nine hours each days with a global circus. It would seem like a fantasy; however, it would be short-lived. Upon beginning his rehearsals Cusick submitted to a physical to be sure that he wasn’t injured before beginning. In fact, he was put on a short list of people to take over for a person leaving the Las Vegas cast. His training was ramped up for a few weeks so that he could begin working even sooner than originally planned.
Then everything changed. Cusick was called into a meeting with upper management and summarily dismissed. For what reason? During the conversation with the doctor when he was originally screened, he revealed his HIV status and was assured that it would not affect his employment with the company. This proved to not be the case. Despite the fact that there have been zero cases of HIV infection by way of participation in team sports, Cirque du Soleil felt they had to protect not only the other members of the cast but also the audience. Matthew contacted Lambda Legal, who filed a federal lawsuit for job discrimination on his behalf. And they won.
Since you won your law suit against Cirque, how have you stayed active with HIV activism?
I’ve spoken at organizations and conferences about HIV/AIDS, I’ve participated in AIDS walks and worked with Keeping Positive, doing Public Service Announcements for them. I’ve been staying active and public, supporting other people in similar work situations or who are newly aware that they have sero-converted. I help long-term survivors find a late voice to stand up and fight, if they didn’t resist discrimination when they first experienced it.
Has being openly HIV and an activist who has sued a former employer hurt your subsequent prospects?
No, not that I’m aware of. I’ve not pursued any other circuses since I left Cirque though because I’ve been organizing my own performances at corporate events. Given that I’ve already won one lawsuit other organizations aren’t likely to repeat Cirque’s mistake.
Do you have insurance of some kind? How do you cover your health care if you don’t have benefits through a standard job or contracted performance gig?
I have individual health insurance and it’s not cheap. But it’s necessary for my ongoing treatments. For people who can’t afford their own insurance and need HIV medication, ADAP (AIDS Drug Assistance Program) is in every state. It provides HIV meds according to a sliding scale. Each state is different, so a person would have to check on their local requirements.
What organizations have you/do you work with in your effort to campaign for HIV job equality?
I’ve performed for and/or spoken at events sponsored by Cable Positive, the Whitman Walker Clinic in D.C., Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York, and Broadway Cares.
What philosophy do you live by to have not only achieved so much success as an athlete but also as an advocate for equality?
It’s not so much a philosophy that I’ve hammered out for myself, it’s more of an inspirational quote. It’s on my website and it motivates me: “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” That has been the concept that drives me.
What goals have you achieved and which do you still aspire to?
Already? Well I got in Cirque, but that’s the past. I think I’ve achieved the goal of being a positive influence on the people that I interact with in my life. As for ongoing goals… I would like to achieve more successes as a performer in this economy! (Laughs) It’s hard to define what my precise goals are, because you can’t put a dollar value on art.
Have you found that your choice to fight discrimination has helped you in other ways indirectly, or that your choice has helped other directly?
Oh, yes. Indirectly, I’ve become more respected in general and there are other benefits from that. I’ve enjoyed the benefits of being a role model, but that also has drawbacks in terms of privacy. You definitely get scrutinized in your personal life. Directly, I know that other people benefit because my case is used by the American Bar Case Study as an example of how to successfully defend people from HIV-related job discrimination. My case set precedents.