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Gay Skydiver Don Zarda Is Dead But His Legal Fight Could Alter History

DON ZARDA

Zarda's attorney, Gregory Antollino, shares memories of his client and discusses the fight that awaits at the Supreme Court.

I hesitate to begin this story because I don't know how it will end. But I have been waiting so long for this moment -- my greatest, biggest leap.

Don Zarda was from Kansas, Missouri, and Texas. But only after landing in New York did Don confront the small-mindedness of discrimination -- in Suffolk County, to be exact. That was about nine years ago. The day after discrimination occurred, Don was inside my law office in Chelsea -- about two miles from Trump Tower.

It was easy to accept Don's case. I'd never before met anyone like him. Don was a skydiving aeronaut. An adrenaline-fueled parachutist who fearlessly faced death. His aspirations are now my inspiration.

Because after we met, Don perished in a BASE jumping free-fall in Switzerland (since facing that type of danger is still illegal in the United States). Don was an elite daredevil. He viewed the world while climbing the greatest heights. His perspective was bigger than Texas.

In New York, he worked for a company called Altitude Express. His clients clung to Don while they jumped together -- two-to-one. Like being part of a battalion, he instilled trust while helping others withstand extreme pressure.

Altitude fired Don after he expressed so-called "personal information" to a female passenger. To make her feel "safer" about being in such close proximity, Don revealed that he enjoyed intimate bonds with men -- "don't worry about me, I'm gay and have the ex-husband to prove it." His passenger was unaccustomed to meeting such a broad-minded guy. Don was indeed a unique individual.

I could have given up on Don's case. Most lawyers would have before going all the way to trial. But Don's sworn testimony had been recorded at a deposition and could be read at trial. To read a dead person's sworn statements at trial is feasible but unusual. Nevertheless, without a living plaintiff, the Zarda estate lost at trial. I made some strategic mistakes, I admit.

In any case, for Don, I appealed on behalf of the estate. We appeared before an en-banc panel of 13 judges. Five other attorneys argued as well on both sides. I went into my argument, slowly paced, ending the extravaganza with confidence. Maybe I got some confidence from Don. It felt good. I made the many people in that colossal courtroom laugh at me.

Months later, my skydiver won, then Altitude Express took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court; oral arguments are on October 8. Facing a Supreme Court decision is terrifying -- almost as terrifying as skydiving.

Gregory Antollino is a civil rights attorney practicing in New York City.

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