February 28, 2024 -
Matt Nosanchuk, a cousin of our Senior Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk, served as our guest speaker at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple this past June on Friday, June 22, 2012. He spoke about his work in the civil rights division of the Department of Justice, as a senior counselor to the Attorney General and the Obama Administration on LGBT issues. Below are portions of his remarks about the work being done to secure civil rights for LGBT Americans, and the defining nature of this work as consistent with Jewish teachings and values. We welcome your responses and the opportunity you may wish to take to forward Matt Nosanchuk’s remarks to others.
This month we celebrate LGBT Pride, and recognize the substantial work of the LGBT civil rights movement and how far we have come in protecting the rights of LGBT individuals. But we also recognize the hard work that lies ahead to secure equal rights for everyone in our communities. I am honored to be a part of this work as a member of this Administration, which continues to demonstrate its strong commitment to LGBT rights on a variety of fronts.
But I want to begin with a word about what it means to be doing this work as a Jew in the American government. As Jews, we know that depriving people of civic equality can perpetuate stigma, justify prejudice and deny fundamental equality. Because of our history, when we witness injustice we feel an obligation to speak up. This is one reason why there is a long and proud tradition of Jewish Americans at the forefront of progressive causes. From opposing child labor early last century to marching alongside Dr. King to leading the fight for gender equality, Jewish Americans have long fought for civil rights of all sorts.
One of the great civil rights causes for these times, of course, is the effort to secure LGBT rights and achieve full equality for LGBT individuals and their families. President Obama is undeniably a leader in the fight for equality for all, as reflected in the Proclamation he issued to celebrate Pride Month this Year: “From generation to generation, ordinary Americans have led a proud and inexorable march toward freedom, fairness, and full equality under the law – not just for some, but for all. Ours is a heritage forged by those who organized, agitated, and advocated for change; who wielded love stronger than hate and hope more powerful than insult or injury; who fought to build for themselves and their families a Nation where no one is a second-class citizen, no one is denied basic rights, and all of us are free to live and love as we see fit.”
The Administration is committed to promoting LGBT rights across the executive branch, and I feel privileged to be a part of this unified effort to ensure that LGBT individuals have equal opportunities in all aspects of their lives – from equal access to housing and healthcare, to protection against harassment and violence, to nondiscrimination in schools, at hospitals, and in the military.
I joined the administration in 2009, and I never could have imagined then that in less than three years we’d make so much progress. Back in 2009, just as I learned I had been tapped for this position, I had the privilege to attend the first-ever White House Pride reception. It took place days after the Department of Justice had filed a brief in support of DOMA that, shall we say, did not employ the most tactful approach to the issue. The community was unhappy with the Justice Department, so I remember laying low during the reception – I wasn’t advertising my upcoming administration post. Now three years later, President Obama is on the cover of Newsweek with a rainbow halo and the headline, “First Gay President.”
A lot – and I mean a lot – has happened in three years. We have worked to make life easier for same-sex partners so they can enjoy the benefits that we accord to opposite sex couples. Hospitals that receive federal funds, like Medicare or Medicaid, must allow all patients to receive visits from their families and loved ones, including same-sex partners. The Department of Labor clarified that the Family Medical Leave Act, which requires certain employers to provide job-protected, unpaid leave for some medical and family reasons, applies to all families of every kind. And Customs and Border Patrol recently announced that families in one household – including domestic partners and their children – can make a single, joint declaration when they return from overseas travel. Each of these changes alone makes life a little easier and a little more convenient for LGBT families. And all of them, taken together, move us closer toward the promise of full equality.
Protecting the health of all individuals, including LGBT individuals, has also been a top priority of this administration. The – constitutional – Affordable Care Act prohibits insurers from denying coverage based on LGBT status, and the Department of Health and Human Services is now collecting the health data of LGBT populations so it can better target healthcare to their needs. HHS is also working with other agencies in the Administration, including the Department of Justice, to stop the pervasive bullying of LGBT youth that occurs in schools across the country that is tragically linked to mental health illness and suicide. In 2009 the President signed the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Treatment Extension Act, which improves the availability of care for low-income uninsured and under-insured victims of AIDS and their families. That same year, the administration announced it would lift the HIV Entry Ban, which denied U.S. entry to HIV-positive persons.
The administration has also worked extensively with the international community to protect LGBT rights around the globe. As Secretary Hillary Clinton proclaimed in Geneva, “gay rights are human rights” – the first time those words had ever been uttered by a senior administration official. The administration has signed the UN Declaration on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, which condemns human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity wherever they occur. 3
After Secretary Clinton’s speech, President Obama directed all federal agencies to identify ways in which they could further LGBT human rights in their activities and last week, I helped to finalize the Justice Department’s submission, which focuses on training, hate crimes (an area in which the United States is a leader among nations), and, where we can exercise our jurisdiction, prosecuting those who persecute LGBT individuals abroad.
Before I talk in more detail about our work at DOJ, I want to mention three other significant milestones.
The first you’re certainly heard about. Last year, the President repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” recognizing that: “Valor and sacrifice are no more limited by sexual orientation than they are by race or by gender or by religion or by creed . . . At every turn, every crossroads in our past, we know gay Americans fought just as hard, gave just as much to protect this nation and the ideals for which it stands.” As a result of the repeal of DADT, all members of our military, bravely serving our country, can do so openly and honestly, without fear. And thanks to the efforts of a fellow appointee and close friend, who is an appointee at the Pentagon, the Defense Department is holding its first ever LGBT Pride celebration next week and Secretary Leon Panetta prepared a Pride month video broadcast last week throughout our armed forces.
The second is the Administration’s efforts to secure equality for LGBT federal employees and their families. In June 2009, in conjunction with the Pride reception I attended, President Obama issued another Presidential Memorandum directing federal agencies to extend, to the fullest extent permitted, by law, rights and benefits to LGBT federal employees and their families. Today a range of benefits have been extended to lesbian and gay federal employees and their families. Same-sex partners of federal employees now have access to benefits like sick leave, life insurance, and moving expenses, benefits previously afforded only to different-sex partners. We have ended housing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in federal housing grant programs.
In addition, transgender individuals can easily change their passports to reflect their lived gender identity; and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently issued a decision that the prohibition on sex discrimination in Title VII protects transgender individuals from discrimination.
Third is the continued march toward marriage equality. I watched with pride – as I’m sure many of you did as well – last month when President Obama declared his support for marriage equality. His announcement acknowledges the extent to which marriage equality has become a significant measure and symbol of full equality, and underscores the Administration’s deep commitment to equality under the law for all individuals and to ensuring that every family in this nation has a chance to thrive. Not only does the Administration believe that all families deserve legal recognition, it has sought to help every family be safe, healthy, and economically secure through our work on consumer protection, with the Affordable Care Act, and to prevent mortgage fraud and foreclosures.
Now that you have a broad view of the federal government’s work on LGBT issues, I want to focus in on the Department of Justice. The Department and the Civil Rights Division in 4 particular – under the supportive leadership of Attorney General Eric Holder – has been central to the administration’s efforts to advance the rights of the LGBT individuals. The Department’s commitment to protecting and enforcing the rights of LGBT individuals is evidenced most significantly in two ways.
First, there is the enactment of the historic Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which President Obama signed in October 2009. It expands federal hate crimes law, securing nationwide civil rights protection to those victimized on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, national origin and, for the first time, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. For the first in American history, the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” appear in the U.S. Code, to protect LGBT individuals expressly. We have many open matters including ones involving hate crimes committed against LGBT individuals. We are now able to provide forensic and other support to state and local law enforcement, who conduct the lion’s share of violent crime prosecutions in this country, when they prosecute LGBT hate crimes under their own laws. And this past April, the Department brought the first case under the sexual orientation provision of the law against two men who allegedly kidnapped and assaulted a man because he was gay.
Second there is the Department’s conclusion, after extensive legal analysis, that all laws that distinguish on the basis of sexual orientation should be scrutinized closely by courts, much in the same way that laws distinguishing on race, gender, and religion are closely reviewed. Under the Constitution, all individuals are guaranteed the same rights under the law. Laws that inappropriately distinguish between persons because of sexual orientation are impermissible, and are especially suspect given the long history of discrimination against LGBT persons and because sexual orientation does not relate to one’s ability to contribute to society.
Because of this conclusion regarding the applicable constitutional analysis, the President and the Attorney General concluded that the Department could no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act, which for the purpose of all federal laws defines the terms “marriage” and “spouse” to exclude same-sex couples. Under DOMA, LGBT individuals are denied the more than a thousand federal benefits, rights and obligations that are given to all other married people, from Social Security benefits to immigration rights to health care coverage for spouses of federal employees. Several lower courts have already found DOMA to be unconstitutional, including one federal court of appeals in Boston, and we hope and expect that more courts, including one very important court, will do so in the coming year.
Just as important as changing bad laws is the imperative of enforcing good ones. The Department has trained thousands of law enforcement officers and community stakeholders to help us enforce the Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The Department has also made findings, for the first time ever, against a police department that has systematically violated the rights of LGBT individuals, among others, by engaging in illegal arrests and using excessive force.
We have also strengthened and expanded enforcement of some of our most time-tested and important civil rights laws. These laws include the prohibitions on sex discrimination, including sex stereotyping, contained in Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which turned 40 this week – Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act; and the prohibition on HIV discrimination in the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Department of Justice has, in the last three years, employed or explored using every one of these laws to protect the rights of LGBT Americans.
The Department also partners with other agencies to advance LGBT rights on a variety of fronts, coordinating efforts with other agencies, including the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Education, to ensure equality in all aspects of individual lives. We have been particularly active in our work to respond to the scourge of bullying and harassment of youth, including LGBT youth. We’ve helped to plan several federal summits on bullying and have used our Title IX authority to address sex-based discrimination, bullying and harassment of youth who are gender non-confirming by holding school districts, like the one in Anoka-Hennepin, Minnesota (Minnesota’s largest), accountable for the failure to take steps to address it.
The umbrella for much of this work is our Civil Rights Division GLBT Working Group. That group determines ways in which existing civil rights laws can eliminate discrimination experienced by LGBT individuals. We identify appropriate cases in which the Division can participate as an amicus curiae or intervener, engage in education outreach, and give policy assistance to help various parts of the federal government expand LGBT protections.
Challenges still lie ahead. We have not yet seen the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would expressly prohibit discrimination against LGBT persons in the workplace. Nor have we seen sufficient progress in a number of other areas, including expanding the Violence against Women Act, and passing explicit protection for LGBT youth in schools with the Student Non-Discrimination Act. Perhaps most of all, the Defense of Marriage Act – legislation motivated by nothing more than animus toward LGBT couples – is still the law of the land.
As I think about these accomplishments and the challenges that lie ahead, I think about the many Jews working to advance the rights of LGBT Americans. The founders and directors of some of our most important national gay rights organizations have been Jewish. So have some of the leading writers, poets, and scholars advocating for gay rights over the past decades. And American’s first openly gay congressman has spoken eloquently about the connection between Jewish values and social justice, including gay rights.
And there are the many LGBT Jews working in the federal government – appointees like EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum or Office of Personnel Management General Counsel Elaine Kaplan – and career attorneys – even our Civil Rights Division GLBT Working Group Co-Chair Sharon McGowan, who keynoted a Cleveland area Transgender Day of Remembrance event last year. And then there are many, many, many straight, Jewish allies in the Administration, allies like your very own U.S. Attorney, Steve Dettelbach, who chairs the Civil Rights Working Group for all U.S. Attorneys on the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee.
And while we honor our LGBT leaders during Pride month, of equal importance are the accomplishments and contributions of “we, the Jewish people.” Many synagogues and congregations have been instrumental in advocating for LGBT equality. My own congregation, Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, is one shining example. Though most of our members are straight – we don’t have an LGBT Havurah like yours – Adat Shalomers came together as a community to advocate for marriage equality during the recent debate in Maryland. Dozens of members came to rallies and other events, and members of the congregation hosted the largest pro-marriage phone bank in the state – totaling over 5,000 calls made in support of marriage equality.
None of this is a coincidence.
Efforts like these are in the best traditions of social justice. Moreover, our tradition recognizes the centrality of marriage and family to a fulfilled Jewish life. When a Jewish child is born, the community traditionally blesses them by wishing them a life filled with three things: Torah, Marriage, and Good Deeds (Torah, Chuppah, and Ma’asim Tovim). As I work on this issue and watch both the progress – and setbacks – at the courthouses, ballot boxes, and legislatures across this nation, I think back to those three blessings. Part of the reason I do this work is that I want every Jewish child – gay or straight – to have the opportunity to fulfill all three.
The Torah commands us to show kindness to the poor, the widow, and the orphan. Perhaps most poignantly, it commands us to welcome the stranger among us, because we were strangers in Egypt. I think our own collective experiences – be it suffering as slaves in Egypt or more recent anti-Semitism in Europe – have for so many Jews reinforced the importance of advocating for the oppressed among us, whoever they might be.
Many parts of our tradition support LGBT rights. Genesis (B’reshit) makes clear that “God created humans in God’s own image” – all of us, regardless of who we are and who we love, are created in God’s image and contain within us the divine presence. While some Biblical strict constructionists might invoke few lines from Leviticus, I prefer to look at the Torah as a whole. And as a whole, the message is clearly one of respect for diversity and difference. We are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves, not to bear a grudge against anyone in the community, and to pursue justice. None of these commandments come with preconditions, and nothing in any of them would deny gay or lesbian community members the full respect and full set of rights that they deserve.
As a result, I strive to follow the most laudable part of our tradition each day at work when I think about what it means to fulfill the Constitution’s promise of Equal Protection for all Americans. The denial of any rights for any person, even the stranger in our midst – especially the stranger in our midst – is antithetical to our values as Jews and as Americans. That was true in the civil rights movements of past generations, and it remains true today. But just as those movements overcame enormous odds to make changes that were once thought impossible, I am confident that this movement will continue to do so. In doing so, we will be fulfilling God’s commandment of tikkun olam, repairing the world.