“Don wanted to fly – his life mission was to be in the air,” Bill Moore said, discussing the deepest passion of Don Zarda, Bill’s dear friend and former partner. “He always wanted to be a pilot, he always wanted to be in the air, and so it was no surprise that when he started skydiving as a hobby, he got addicted to the adrenaline.”
“He was so obsessive-compulsive,” Bill told Freedom for All Americans. “He would quadruple-check everything on every skydiving jump he did – every hook, every strap, every last thing about the parachute. He worked at many different companies at many different drop zones for many years. If you were going to jump on a skydive with anyone, you would want it to be with him.”
Don Zarda was very good at his job. He took it seriously and he loved doing it – and that’s why Bill was confused and caught off guard when he received an upset call back in 2010 with news from Don: He had been fired from his job at a drop zone on Long Island in New York.
The week before, he had completed a tandem jump with a woman, who was skydiving with her boyfriend and several other friends. When Don began to check the customer’s equipment and get her in position, her friend shouted at the boyfriend, “I bet you didn’t think your girlfriend was going to be strapped to another guy!”
Don sought to set the woman, her boyfriend, and all involved at ease, explaining that he was “100% gay” and laughing that he had the former husband to prove it. He had come upon similar situations in the past, and since he is often perceived to be straight, he found a joking statement like this useful for calming the situation.
The jump went smoothly, and Don moved on from the exchange, until a few days later when his boss received a complaint from the woman and her boyfriend, who recounted how Don had shared supposedly inappropriate information regarding his sexuality and came into too-close physical contact with her, despite close physical contact being required of a tandem skydive jump. With the complaint on his hands, Don’s boss suspended him for a week, took money from his paycheck to cover the cost of refunding the customer, and when the suspension was done, he terminated Don’s employment altogether.
Don Zarda, wearing his pink hat, a staple of his wardrobe
In the final discussion terminating Don – which Don recorded – the boss mentioned the physical contact claim in passing, as though it were an afterthought, before moving onto his more significant concern: That revealing Don’s sexual orientation was an unnecessary divulging of “personal issues.”
The boss said that Don shouldn’t tell customers about his “escapades,” a homophobic allusion to sexual behavior instead of a gay identity. Weeks later, in an effort to disqualify Don from unemployment benefits, the boss said Don was fired for “misconduct” for the disclosure of “personal information” – but he did not mention anywhere about the customer’s alleged physical discomfort on the jump.
Tension around Don’s sexual orientation had been building for a few weeks between Don and his boss. Earlier in the summer he broke his ankle on a tough post-jump landing, and to fix the fracture, he had doctors wrap him in a pink cast.
“Don was a butch, very masculine guy – but he liked to play around with femininity, whether it was putting on a bright pink cast or a bright pink hat or sometimes wearing nail polish. He was sort of a rebel like that,” Bill explained. “Very few people guessed that he was gay, and so he liked to express it in different ways. He liked to break the stereotype about gay men and break that mold – just to let people know that there are all kinds of gay men and women in the world.”
When Don returned to work from surgery, the Altitude Express owner sent him home, saying he was not permitted to wear the pink cast at the drop zone. In order to work, he needed to put a black bag over the pink cast. Beyond the cast incident, Don’s sexuality was often the butt of his coworkers’ jokes, teased as “Gay Don” in a hyper-masculine environment. The issue, it seemed, was that Don’s boss did not want customers to know he was gay – and when he outed himself and the customer complained, he was fired.
Don filed a lawsuit alleging employment discrimination under the New York State Human Rights Law and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on sex.
On September 26, his case, Zarda v. Altitude Express, will be considered en banc by the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, which has jurisdiction over New York, Connecticut, and Vermont. The case, led by attorney Gregory Antollino, could trigger an enormous victory for the movement for LGBTQ non-discrimination if the appellate court determines that discrimination based on “sex” is synonymous with discrimination based on sexual orientation. If the court rules this way and overturns outdated precedent that has been barring progress in the circuit for nearly 20 years, it would be a landmark decision, the second appellate court in the country to do so, joining the 7th Circuit (Indiana, Wisconsin, and Illinois), which ruled en banc in favor of a gay plaintiff in April 2017.
Don’s case has dragged on for more than six years now in court – and after all of this time, his loved ones want nothing more than to see justice for Don – and for the thousands of Americans discriminated against each year because of their sexual orientation.
* * * * *
Tragically, Don will not be able to see the outcome of his own case for himself. He passed away in October 2014 while on a BASE jumping trip in Switzerland.
Still, the case continues – the executors of Don’s estate, his former partner Bill and his sister Melissa Zarda – are carrying the torch to the 2nd Circuit, determined to see justice for Don and overturn the outdated circuit precedent that has plagued LGBTQ people who have faced discrimination for far too long.
Bill will be traveling to New York for the oral argument on September 26 – standing in for Don and carrying on the fight. Bill has been involved in the legal case since Don was fired, and he stood by Don as he encountered attacks on his reputation and his morality from the customer, his former employer, and others.
Don and Bill lived together for more than seven years, and while their romantic relationship ended in 2007, they remained extremely close. “We stopped living together, but we didn’t stop being partners,” Bill explained. “We were each other’s emergency contact. We still had our health insurance together and our car insurance together. We still called each other partners.”
The men met in the fall of 2000. Don had just finished a season of skydiving in San Marcos, Texas and was driving North to head to Kansas City, Missouri, where he grew up, but he stopped in Dallas and met Bill.
“We immediately connected – and he didn’t wind up making it home for a bit,” Bill laughed.
The morning after they met, Don had a surprise for Bill – the men drove out of the city and Don surprised Bill by arranging a skydive to a drop zone in the area. “It was romantic for him – but it was a little scary for me,” Bill said.
It was their first jump together, and in the years to come they went on skydiving trips to Hawaii, San Diego, and more. They were in the air – together.
* * * * *
Traveling for extreme sports adventures was Don’s favorite way to spend his time, and he would aim to fill his work schedule with opportunities to take him out of the country and into exciting new locations. For a few summers in a row, he went to Europe, rented a car, and drove all across the continent with friends who were also air sports enthusiasts.
In October of 2014 Don was in Switzerland with three friends for a BASE Jumping Wingsuit trip. For this sport, participants wear a special suit, jump off of high cliffs, fall freely and quickly, and pull a parachute just before landing in order to safely float back to earth.
Don and his friends had never jumped off of this specific exit point, but after testing it by throwing rocks off of the ledge and determining whether it was a safe impact zone, two of Don’s friends jumped down. When they landed, they looked up at Don, making hand gestures to discourage him from jumping. It wasn’t safe, the cliff was not a good candidate for a jump, and it was much more dangerous than they had thought.
Don misinterpreted their crossed hands as a “thumbs up” gesture. He turned, prepared for his jump, and took a leap.
His friends heard his body hit the cliff’s edge just a few seconds later.
* * * * *
On Saturday morning in Dallas, Bill Moore’s phone buzzed with a message from one of Don’s friends. “Don’s been in an accident,” the message said.
“You don’t have an accident with this kind of athletics,” Bill said. “You don’t get hurt – you just die. I knew as soon as I called him that it was terrible news.”
Everything moved quickly – the Dallas Police Department arrived at Bill’s door, explaining that the United States Embassy in Switzerland needed to tell Bill about the accident. and make arrangements for Bill to arrive in Geneva and claim Don’s ashes and the few belongings that were recovered. Weeks later, a memorial service for Don was held in Kansas City with his family and childhood friends, and then Bill hosted a smaller memorial in Dallas.
The morning before he received the phone call, Bill was standing in his kitchen making a smoothie, his morning ritual, and one of the floor-to-ceiling windows in his kitchen spontaneously shattered.
“I ran outside because I thought a kid had taken a brick to my window,” Bill said. “But when I looked I saw that it had shattered from the inside. It was the interior pane, not the exterior pane. And so while I was confused, I didn’t think much of it – just sent a text message to the contractor asking what the warranty on the glass was, and then I went to work.”
Days after Don’s death, Bill thought about where he was the exact moment that Don died. “I started looking at my calendar and my text messages,” Bill said. “I wanted to know what I was doing, what I was wearing, where I was sitting.”
“They told me he died at 3:05 in the afternoon on Friday – that’s what they had in his death certificate, 10:05am my time,” Bill said. “I sent the text message to my builder about the window at 10:10 that morning.”
“I’ll always think that was Don who shattered my window,” Bill said. “I’ll always think that was Don saying one last thing to me – ‘Bye.'”
* * * * *
Before Don’s final trip to Europe, he drew up a last will and testament, naming Bill and Don’s sister Melissa as co-executors of the estate.
One decision they had to make together after Don’s death was whether to continue the case – and for Bill and Melissa both, it was a no-brainer.
“I want to finish the case for Don and for all of the other LGBTQ people in the community who are impacted by anti-LGBTQ discrimination.” – Bill Moore
“I called Gregory Antollino, Don’s attorney in the suit, and he was obviously upset by Don’s death. And as we talked, we realized the importance of carrying on this case and carrying forward on Don’s behalf. If we won this lawsuit, it would be something big for the entire country – and it would be a fitting legacy for Don.”
“Don always said that he never had a purpose,” Bill said, remembering discussions with his former partner. “But he did did have a purpose – he just didn’t fully know what it was. I want to finish this case because of Don. I want to finish the case for Don and for all of the other LGBTQ people in the community who are impacted by anti-LGBTQ discrimination.”
* * * * *
Bill himself is no stranger to anti-LGBTQ employment discrimination.
Nearly 20 years ago, in 2000, he was fired from a nutrient company, where he worked in the corporate office. On his desk was a photo of himself and his best friend and roommate, a transgender woman.
While he was out of the office, his co-workers crowded around his desk, looking at the photo and laughing at the fact that Bill was close friends with a transgender person. Everyone caught wind of the photo, including the company founder, a religious person who said the company was founded on the basis of Christian beliefs and Christian values.
When Bill returned to the office that day, his final paycheck was waiting for him on his desk. A few days later, his supervisor shared that the owner had fired Bill because of the photograph at his desk.
Now Bill owns a MedSpa in Dallas, the oldest and largest in the city. But the experience of facing discrimination because the people in charge do not approve of LGBTQ people has left an indelible mark on him – and he knows that it is up to every fair-minded American to work against such shameful injustice.
A few months after Don’s death, Bill married his husband Clint, who he had been dating for some time.
“My husband Clint and I are kindred spirits, and we have an amazing relationship and an amazing life together,” Bill said. “I’m glad that he and Don had met a few times before Don’s death – I’m sure Don knows that I’ve been left in good hands.”
* * * * *
Bill is looking forward to the 2nd Circuit hearing in September because he knows how important it is to stand up and fight against discrimination. He’s felt the impact of discrimination in his own life, and he’s watched as Don struggled with the many tangible and intangible effects of being fired.
“I hope that we win this case. I hope that this sets a precedent and that other states follow suit. I want to be sure to protect all of the LGBTQ people out there in every facet of life. We should be protected like everyone else is, and right now, we’re not. I hope this changes that.”
“I want to be sure to protect all of the LGBTQ people out there in every facet of life. We should be protected like everyone else is, and right now, we’re not. I hope this changes that.” – Bill Moore
At the end of July, the Trump Administration’s Department of Justice, without prompting from any party, filed a “friend-of-the-court” brief in the Zarda case, asserting that Title VII does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. It’s a nasty brief, one aimed at rolling the movement for LGBTQ non-discrimination backward.
“Obviously Don died before Trump became president – but I think he would be ecstatic to know that his story had caused news involving Donald Trump. He would get a kick out of knowing that people were discussing Donald Trump and Barack Obama and Don Zarda in the same sentence.”
“I think he’s watching,” Bill said about Don and how he would feel to know that his case is sparking national news, poised to bring historic change for LGBTQ Americans. “I think Don knows what’s going on. And I think he would be really proud. He would be ecstatic to know that Melissa and I are continuing on with his case. He would be so proud of it.”