Matthew Cusick-Performace Extraordinaire
A victory for all
by Jeff Berry
By now you’ve probably heard the familiar story of gay gymnast Matthew Cusick, fired by Cirque du Soleil in 2003 because he was HIV-positive. Cusick, at the time training for the Las Vegas show Mystere, had disclosed to Cirque his status eight months earlier, when it came up in discussion during a routine checkup. He continued training until one day he was called into the office and abruptly fired, solely on the basis of being HIV-positive. Cirque officials informed him that he was considered a health risk to fellow employees, performers, stagehands, and even the audience. Cusick enlisted the help of LAMBDA Legal, sued and subsequently won a landmark federal antidiscrimination lawsuit, based on the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination by employers against people with disabilities.
What you may not know is that Cusick recently appeared alongside gay icon Susan Sarandon and big and small screen heartthrob Patrick Dempsey, in the feature film Enchanted. He currently performs for the New York Metropolitan Opera as a supernumerary, appearing in scenes which require an acrobatic element or other non-singing roles.
“I love the feeling of being onstage, performing in front of an audience,” says Cusick. “I never get nervous, or have to go backstage and throw up or anything.” Thousands looked on as he gave a powerful, four-act tour de force during the opening ceremonies of the Gay Games in Chicago in 2006. The theme of the exquisitely choreographed numbers dealt with overcoming adversity, which closely mirrored his life up to that point.
Born in Alexandria, Virginia, Cusick, 36, was the youngest of four children, with two brothers and one sister. His father was a U.S. Park Service policeman, his mother a homemaker, and the family moved around quite a bit during his childhood. Cusick began studying gymnastics when he was only five years old, but stopped at the age of 18, mainly because he was too tall to compete—over six feet—but also because by then he needed a break. “I was basically pushed out by my coach, who was really tough on me, and expected me to live up to his own standards, not just the USA Gymnastics standards,” says Cusick. After that he went on to coach and train other gymnasts for several years. Although he was a tough coach himself, he says his girls loved him, and he still keeps in touch with some of them to this day.
Cusick learned he was positive at the age of 22, prior to the advent of protease inhibitors, so he really didn’t think he’d be around this long. He began HIV therapy about five years later, and is now doing quite well. Currently single, he lives and works in New York City. When he’s not at the Met, you’ll find Cusick and his performance partner Ken Berkely, a National Sports Aerobics Champion, touring in their handbalancing act, KENiMATTix.
Following the Cirque lawsuit, fearing he’d been blacklisted, Cusick was unsure whether he’d ever work again. However, in 2004 Cusick was once again able to show his true colors, and much more, at Broadway Bares, a one-night event produced by Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, which has raised millions for HIV/AIDS organizations nationwide. Appearing in Broadway Bares, two years in a row, was a very self-affirming experience for Cusick. Contrary to being blacklisted, he now found himself embraced by the very community for which he had gone to bat.
Steve Villano, director of Cable Positive, the AIDS action organization of the cable industry, describes Matthew as a very inspiring person. “He is so upfront, and doesn’t exaggerate things. He’s a courageous example of what one person can do to change how a company responds to HIV-positive individuals.” Cable Positive recently produced a short video documentary on Matthew’s plight which aired on the Sundance Channel. “He won an enormous victory,” continues Villano, “not only for himself, but for a lot of people around the world.”
As part of the settlement, Cirque was required to change their policy, and to implement one of the largest, annual company-wide education programs in the country. Cusick continues to travel around the country, speaking to audiences about his experience, in hopes that something like this never happens again.
When asked why he ultimately chose to fight back, Cusick replies, “I just didn’t want anyone else to go through what I went through.”