Featured Story

Landmark Supreme Court ruling to affirm LGBTQ rights included local connection

Monday’s landmark Supreme Court ruling, which concluded that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 offers protection from workplace discrimination to gay and transgender employees, has a Southampton connection.

One of the original plaintiffs in the two sets of federal court cases that, combined, were the subject of the 6-3 Supreme Court ruling on Monday was Donald Zarda, then a Southampton resident who was a skydiving instructor employed by Altitude Express in Calverton. Mr. Zarda was fired by the former owner of the business, Ray Maynard of Southampton.

Mr. Zarda died in an unrelated skydiving accident in 2014, but his federal lawsuit continued on, all the way to the Supreme Court.

He sued his former employer, alleging that he was terminated in 2010 solely because he was gay. He alleged that he was fired after a female customer of Altitude Express, also known as Skydive Long Island, complained about him after completing a tandem jump with her.

While trying to alleviate any awkwardness that comes with being strapped to the back of an instructor, Mr. Zarda informed the woman that he was gay, according to the litigation. He was fired a short time later.

Mr. Maynard, who later sold the business, maintained in a 2017 interview that he did not fire Mr. Zarda because he was gay, but because he was unhappy with his job performance. “When I hired him, I was told he was gay,” said Mr. Maynard. “I said, ‘I don’t care what you are if you’re a good skydiver and do your job.’ ”

Nevertheless, the case continued and became a cause for the LGBTQ+ community, joined with several similar cases that were taken all the way to the Supreme Court, seeking the expansion of civil rights protection to the gay and transgender community, where employment issues are concerned.

Southampton has the distinction of having a direct connection to what have been called the two most important court rulings favoring the LGBTQ+ community.

Edie Windsor, who died in September 2017, was a resident of Southampton Town in 2007 when she married her longtime partner, Thea Spyer, in Toronto, Canada, where same-sex marriage was legal.

Ms. Spyer was suffering from multiple sclerosis at the time and died two years later. Ms. Windsor inherited her late spouse’s estate but was required to pay $363,000 in taxes — an amount that she would have been exempt from paying if she were married to a man.

The resulting court case, United States vs. Windsor, ended with a 5-4 Supreme Court decision that overturned the Defense of Marriage Act and cleared a path for a later ruling making same-sex marriage legal in every state of the United States.

Ms. Windsor later married a second time, and she and her wife, Judith Kasen-Windsor, were active in the South Fork’s LGBTQ+ community.

This post was published in conjunction with The Southampton Press.