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I Left the Government to Sue the Government Because I Believe in the Constitution

On my very first day at the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, I swore an oath to protect and defend the Constitution.

The oath began like this: “I, Sharon McGowan, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

As I said those words, I could not help but think of the thousands of people who had said them before me, and how they had risked a lot more than I ever would as they made good on this promise.

But that moment when I raised my right hand and took the oath was no less significant to me.

When I was a student in law school back in the 90s, I never seriously contemplated a career in the federal government. At the time, I would have said that I was turned off by the smugness of classmates who were so proud of themselves for having spent a summer “at Justice.” I recognize now that there was a piece of me that never really thought I could find happiness or professional fulfillment working for a government that still blatantly discriminated against LGBT people. And, frankly, I never really thought that they’d want someone like me.

So, taking that oath in 2010 was more than just the start of a new job. It marked a change in how I viewed the federal government. I used to joke with friends that, if most people think of the government as “The Man,” then it turns out that “The Man” is a 5’ 3” lesbian from Queens.

Employees throughout the federal government have their own stories to share about what it meant to them to raise their hand and make a public — and yet personal — commitment to protect the Constitution. So in that sense, my story is not unique.

But what came after is.

During my time at the Justice Department, I worked with the Obama administration to help usher in an unprecedented era of progress. I spent most of my days (and far more nights and weekends than my wife would like me to admit) helping to build the legal foundation for everything from the department’s decision to stop defending DOMA to its position that discrimination on the basis of sex and discrimination on the basis of gender identity go hand-in-hand. I worked to ensure that we enforced federal laws protecting people in employment, housing, education and credit, and served as co-chair of the LGBTI Working Group.

It is hard to put into words just how meaningful it was to be a part of these changes, and how proud I am of the work that I was able to do “on the inside.”

Then, November 8th happened. And like many others, I spent the weeks that followed swinging between denial and dread. And then, whether we were ready for it or not, January 20th arrived.

But I don’t think back on Inauguration Day with despair. Rather, I think of January 20th as the day I received a different call to serve. A different commission to protect and defend the Constitution.

On January 20th, I got a call from my (now) boss, Lambda Legal’s CEO. Rachel offered me a job as Lambda Legal’s Director of Strategy in the Washington, D.C. office that it was about to launch.

I accepted on the spot.

President-elect Trump had already named Jeff Sessions as his attorney general, and I knew that if Mr. Sessions was appointed, there would be no chance for me to preserve what I’d been working on so hard and for so long. At least, not from “the inside.”

Reminiscing on these memories, on that oath I took those years ago, I recognize that it may sound a bit hokey and overly sentimental. But now more than ever, I understand just how important the commitment I made was.

I swore that oath not just to the federal government, but also to my wife, my kids, my neighbors and my friends. To the commuters I ride the Metro with to and from work every day. To the guy I buy my coffee from each morning. To families in other cities, or in towns I’ve never even heard of. To families that look just like mine or maybe nothing like mine at all. To the kid too afraid to come out to their classmates. To the mom working tirelessly to put a roof over her family’s heads. To every person living within this country’s borders, and those longing to join friends and family already here. To people I’ve met, and people I never will.

As a federal employee, I swore that oath for each and every one of us, and I swore to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies — foreign and domestic. And the fact that I am no longer a federal employee does not relieve me of this responsibility. Whether emanating from the White House or on display in the streets of Charlottesville, those domestic threats to our Constitution are just as real and must be taken just as seriously as any foreign enemy.

I’m fortunate that protecting the Constitution is at the heart of what we do here at Lambda Legal. But as proud as I am of the work of my colleagues, I am even more inspired by the courage of Lambda Legal’s clients; ordinary people who show extraordinary courage and commitment to the values that make our nation great: justice, dignity, liberty and equality. They are our Constitution’s greatest champions because they believe that the Constitution means what it says, and they won’t accept anything less.

They are the active and aspiring service members suing President Trump over his transgender military ban. They are the parents and kids who knew that they were entitled to the same protections and responsibilities of marriage. They are the trans and queer students who are standing up for their rights to be treated like their peers in school. And the team at Lambda Legal is proud to be their lawyers.

As heartbreaking as these past few months have been, they have reminded me that you don’t need to be a federal employee in order to defend the Constitution. Each one of us has the ability — and the responsibility — to defend and protect it.

And you don’t need to be a plaintiff in a Lambda Legal lawsuit to make a difference. But supporting our work sure would be a great place to start.


I Left the Government to Sue the Government Because I Believe in the Constitution was originally published in Lambda Legal on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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