CAROLYN SAVOIE | Contributing Writer
Haskell native William Moore spent 10 years learning how to navigate the court system in a fight for workplace protections for the LGBTQ community. That fight ended at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2020 with a 6-3 ruling that discrimination based on gender identity or on sexual orientation is unconstitutional.
This year in Oct. 18, the U.S. Department of Labor inducted Moore into its Hall of Fame in Washington D.C. to celebrate his contributions to LGBTQ labor rights.
When Moore’s then-husband Donald Zarda died in a base-jumping accident in 2014, he was a plaintiff in a discrimination lawsuit against Altitude Express, a skydiving company in Long Island. The company fired Zarda in the summer of 2010 after he had disclosed his identity as a gay man. Moore said he’d experienced workplace discrimination in 2000 when he was fired after his coworkers noticed a picture of Moore and his transgender friend on his desk. In the same month Moore was fired, he was named employee of the month.
In the years after Zarda’s death, Moore and Zarda’s sister, Melissa, continued their relentless pursuit of justice on Zarda’s behalf. “It was incredibly emotional, fighting for justice in Don’s name,” Moore said. “It was never really a choice, whether I was going to continue the lawsuit or not. I knew I had to keep fighting, and Melissa did, too.”
Moore said the first judge who heard the case in a federal district court trial instructed the jury to ignore any evidence that Zarda was a gay man, which won the case for Altitude Express. Moore and Melissa Zarda appealed, and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals decided to hear the case en banc — in other words, the case would be heard by the full court, instead of a panel of three judges.
Then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions weighed in, encouraging the Court of Appeals to throw the case out.
Coincidentally, the court received that request on the same day the Trump administration announced a ban on trans people in the military. That was, Moore said, a big day for anti-LGBTQ discrimination by the administration.
But the court did not throw out the case, opting instead to overturn the lower court’s opinion, ruling that sexual orientation is protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits sex-based discrimination. The court wrote that the law is fluid, and the law on discrimination was meant to evolve as culture evolved. Therefore, it was appropriate to overturn earlier appeals court rulings on discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Moore said he had to learn “a different language” to navigate the courts, a feat aided by Pamela Karlen, a Stanford Law professor and attorney with the ACLU. Karlen is best known for her appearance before the House Judiciary Committee discussing constitutional grounds for impeaching Donald Trump.
The Supreme Court put Zarda v. Altitude Express on its docket, and, four months later, Moore said, the court merged two other employment discrimination cases: R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC & Aimee Stephens and Bostock v. Clayton County.
Stephens was a funeral director at R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., a for-profit corporation that runs funeral homes in Michigan. For most of her employment, Stephens identified and presented as a man. Soon after she disclosed her intent to transition from male to female to the funeral home’s owner, she was fired from her position.
Bostock, a gay man, was working for Clayton County’s child welfare department in Georgia. Shortly after he talked about playing in a gay softball league, the county informed Bostock that it would be conducting an internal audit of the program funds he managed. Then Clayton County terminated Bostock allegedly for “conduct unbecoming of its employees.”
Moore said Karlen and four other ACLU attorneys argued the case, and on June 15, 2020, six years after Zarda’s death, the landmark SCOTUS decision provided crucial legal protection for LGBTQ individuals, ensuring equal employment opportunities and fostering a more inclusive work environment. The decision and subsequent legislation encouraged broader societal acceptance, prompted legislative changes and inspired advocacy efforts to address remaining challenges, like housing and adoption equality.
Like Zardam, Stephens never heard the ruling; she died on May 12, 2020 following a lengthy illness.
Moore said he got a call from his attorneys one morning, and he opened his phone to see that his 10-year effort in pursuing his late husband’s case had paid off for LGBTQ folks throughout the nation.
“Don just wanted the wages he’d lost when he got fired,” Moore said. “He definitely did not expect to start a suit that would go up to the Supreme Court and win workplace protection for our entire community.”
Moore added that he was surprised that a conservative court ruled in their favor. “The feeling was just euphoric, but it was hard to believe that something this big had happened that I was a part of,” Moore said.
While Moore said the landmark decision got some attention, the news around the onset of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter protests eclipsed the momentum around the ruling. “I thought that after the ruling, I would have a platform to continue fighting for our rights,” Moore said. “I thought the momentum would keep building, but with everything else going on, I felt like I lost my voice.”
To anyone currently fighting for LGBTQ rights in the courts, Moore said it is important to remain patient in the pursuit of justice, as the law’s pace is a slow one.
“Stay strong and keep pushing,” he said. “Make waves if need be to make sure we all have the equal rights we deserve. We’ve got to push our senators to pass the Equality Act to guarantee our rights to housing and adoption.”
Moore said he got a call on Sept. 12 informing him that all the plaintiffs in the SCOTUS case would be honored in the U.S. Department of Labor’s Hall of Fame for their efforts. “I Googled it immediately and saw that Ted Kennedy, Ronald Raegan and Helen Keller are all in the hall, which was crazy,” he said. “It made me remember what we’d done and how big of a thing this is for all of our brothers and sisters, for everyone who has ever been denied work because of who they love or how they identify.”
Moore said Zarda would be ecstatic to hear of his induction. He said Zarda’s family watched the induction via livestream, and he still talks to Zarda’s mother and sister regularly. Moore said his husband’s family was also incredibly supportive in his efforts.
“He would be very proud,” Moore said. “It is the biggest honor you can really have in this life. This case was so much bigger than he thought it would be.”