January 06, 2019 Winter 2019

Stonewall Honoree Sharon McGowan

A Look at LGBTQ2 Battlefronts through the Lens of Sharon’s Career

The ABA's Commission on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity is proud to present the 2019 Stonewall Award to Sharon M. McGowan, the Chief Strategy Officer and Legal Director at Lambda Legal. The Award recognizes Sharon’s enormous contributions to the protection of the legal rights of LGBTQ2 individuals.

Sharon grew up in Queens, NY, as the daughter of a NYPD officer. She graduated from the University of Virginia in 1995, after concentrating in the government and foreign affairs honors program, and went on to earn her J.D. from Harvard Law School in 2000. After two federal judicial clerkships and some time in private practice, Sharon joined the ACLU, serving first as the William J. Brennan First Amendment Fellow and then as a Staff Attorney with the LGBT & HIV Project. In 2010, Sharon joined federal service, first serving at DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, then leaving for a stint as a senior executive at OPM, and finally returning to Civil Rights as the Appellate Section’s Principal Deputy Chief. Soon after the new Administration took office, she came to Lambda Legal.

Sharon met her wife Emily Hecht(-McGowan) when both were “doing the work.” Emily was a  staff attorney at Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, where she helped service members affected by the “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” policy.  Sharon and Emily married in 2010, and have two children, Sadie, 6, and Shaia, 2.  The family is active in their synagogue, Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase.  We asked Sharon to share some thoughts regarding her life and career in the movement.  

When did you first consider a career as a lawyer? 

From a young age, I loved public speaking. I participated in storytelling contests in elementary school, and then joined the forensics team in high school.  My interest in becoming a lawyer was driven in significant part by my desire to fight for justice. But looking back on my chatterbox teenage self, I was likely also drawn to a career in the law because it involves talking with other people.

Were you always interested in advocacy for LGBTQ2 rights?  When did you begin focusing your professional efforts on these issues?

As has been the case for many Boston-area law students who came before me and since, volunteering with GLAD (now GLBTQ Advocates & Defenders) – first as a help desk volunteer and then as a research assistant to the amazing attorneys at GLAD – offered my most defining and formative experiences in law school. I was also very lucky that Nan Hunter came to Harvard Law School as a visiting professor during my 1L year, whom I immediately sought out as a mentor, and who remains a friend and trusted advisor to this day. In many ways, my identity as a gay person is integrally intertwined with my identity as a lawyer. 

Your work at the ACLU led to a huge early victory in trans rights in Diane Schroer’s case against the Library of Congress. The decision was perhaps the first to fully embrace the coverage of anti-trans discrimination by Title VII and is still among the most influential in the trans-rights area. Tell us about how you built Diane’s case into this landmark decision.

I went to the ACLU eager to focus on transgender rights, but I could never have predicted that I would have had the opportunity to represent someone as incredible as Diane Schroer in her case against the Library of Congress. Diane’s personal story, including her decades of selfless military service, was tremendously inspiring to me. As was her willingness to speak out against the injustice that she had experienced in such a public way. I felt a huge responsibility toward Diane, and carried a heavy emotional burden of trying to make sure that the sacrifices that she was making to be a plaintiff in such a public-facing  case were worth it to her. At that point, we knew that the law had started to develop in a way that recognized discrimination against transgender people as a form of  sex stereotyping. But in some of those earlier cases, the formulation of the sex stereotyping argument was one that did not necessarily affirm their core identity. I spoke candidly with Diane about the risks involved in trying to formulate her case in a way that did not categorize her as simply “a gender non-conforming man,” but rather validated her as a woman who simply did not fit her prospective employer’s view of who women are, or could be. Her willingness to take that risk ensured that any victory in her case would not benefit only her, but would move the needle in a broader way, which has turned out to be the case.

How did your work change when you came to government service? 

I applied to the Justice Department after Diane’s case against the Library of Congress had essentially run its course, and so while I was a little sad at the thought of leaving my days of LGBTQ2 advocacy behind, I felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment, and looked forward to the opportunities to grow professionally and advance civil rights on a broad array of issues as a DOJ attorney. With that said, it was quite the shock to be in the Justice Department and have us filing briefs defending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and the Defense of Marriage Act, as was the case in 2010. When Judge Young issued his decision striking down DOMA in July 2010, I was well placed to offer a civil rights perspective on how the government might choose to proceed in that moment, and was lucky that there were career officials and political appointees who were prepared to push the argument that the government should stop defending this discriminatory law. I had the chance to view from this inside what it looks like to “turn the ship,”so to speak. Countless memos were drafted, scores of meetings were convened, requiring more memos to be written. But in the end, it was incredibly gratifying to be part of the group of people who helped Attorney General Holder, and ultimately President Obama, reach the conclusion that DOMA was not a law that could or should be defended. I experienced similar initial frustration over the Department’s approach to sex discrimination, and obviously felt as though everyone should just fall into line with the Schroer decision that I had helped secured prior to joining DOJ. But again, months of deliberation, careful legal analysis and consultation across the federal government produced another incredibly important step forward when, in December 2014, Attorney General Holder announced that, going forward, DOJ would recognize that the prohibition on sex discrimination in federal employment [Title VII] also proscribed discrimination against a person for being transgender. 

You went to OPM, and served at a Senior Level there, before returning to DOJ.  Were you ale to continue your LGBTQ2 work at OPM?   

Among my proudest moments as an attorney was when the Office of Personnel Management, two days after the Supreme Court announced its decision in United States v. Windsor, announced that married federal employees and retirees would be able to access the same health and retirement benefits for their same sex spouses as heterosexual employees and retirees. Significantly, we made clear that it did not matter whether the state in which you lived recognized the marriage as valid – it would take two more years before we achieved nationwide marriage equality. But on that day in June 2013, I could hear audible gasps of joy and relief from Chief Human Capital Officers across the federal government when they learned that whether their employee lived in Massachusetts or Virginia, they would all be treated equally for purposes of federal benefits administered by OPM.  I am very grateful that (now Judge) Elaine Kaplan brought me over to OPM to help the agency be ready for that day. It’s rare that you can be part of something that has such a direct and life-altering impact on people in such a positive way.

Tell us about your return to Justice and your decision last year to leave government?  

When I returned to DOJ in 2014, I envisioned myself there for many more years. The election obviously came as quite a shock, but for me, the decision to leave the Justice Department was as much about the appointment of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General as it was about who was in the White House. I knew that many of the gains that we had made during the previous eight years – on LGBTQ2 issues but in other areas of civil rights as well - would be under attack unlike anything that we had seen in our lifetimes.  And so while I considered myself to still be on “Team Civil Rights,” I knew that, in order to keep moving the ball down the field in the direction of social justice, I would have to change uniforms. To this day, I am grateful that the stars aligned in a way that allowed me to continue this crucial work as part of the team of lawyers and advocates at Lambda Legal.

What is the proudest moment in your career, and where do you go from here?

I have been so lucky to have had so many moments in my career that will always fill me with pride. I will always remember being the most junior associate on Jenner & Block’s Lawrence v. Texas team, along with Lambda greats, Ruth Harlow, Pat Logue and Susan  Sommer, and how we all wept as we listened to Justice Kennedy deliver an opinion telling us that it was no longer a crime to be gay. I also remember wondering whether that might be as good as it would ever get as a civil rights lawyer, and perhaps I should just hang up my hat right then and there.  But of course, there were many other great days after that, where the law actually lived up to its promise. With all of that said, the litigator in me will perhaps always take the most pride in having helped Diane Schroer get her day in court. I will never forget that feeling of chills running down my spine as I stood at the podium and offered our opening statement, knowing that, whatever happened, Diane’s story would be told, and her voice would be heard.

Diana Flynn

SOGI Commissioner

Diana Flynn is the Litigation Director at Lambda Legal and a currently serving as a SOGI Commissioner. She is a veteran of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, and is herself a prior recipient of the Stonewall Award. Please note, The Equalizer’s editors may have changed the varying sexual orientation and gender identity acronyms to “LGBTQ2” for consistency.