Veteran civil-rights attorney Matt Nosanchuk made headlines in August 2009 when he was appointed to serve as the Justice Dept.'s dedicated LGBT liaison. A former U.S. Senate staffer, Nosanchuk's varied resume includes work in the nonprofit sector and a position under retired Attorney General Janet Reno.
In his current role as senior counsel to the assistant attorney general, Nosanchuk has been largely responsible for implementing hate crime legislation and seeking new ways to further LGBT rights.
During a recent trip to Chicago, Nosanchuk talked to Windy City Times about hate crimes, President Obama and prospects for 2012.
Windy City Times: You've been charged with overseeing the implementation of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Can you tell us more about that?
Matt Nosanchuk: The bill was passed in 2009, and it's the first federal law to protect civil rights that includes explicit protections on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
One of the big parts of our implementation efforts is educating local law enforcement about the law and the importance of partnering with LGBT communities so that when these crimes do occur, people feel comfortable reporting them.
We want to emphasize to law enforcement that we're doing all we can to spread awareness and that we're going to take a stand against these dehumanizing crimes when they occur.
WCT: Why is it important to reach out to local officials?
Matt Nosanchuk: If you think about it, when a hate crime occurs, it's not like the FBI's going to show up and pounce on you. First responders are going to be local police or community organizations that hear from people.
[Hate crimes] are motivated by such hate and a desire to dehumanize the victim. ... You want to emphasize to law enforcement that these really are different kinds of crimes. It's not efficient to just prosecute them as assault or a crime of opportunity.
WCT: How do you decide which cities or precincts to visit?
Matt Nosanchuk: We started by going to the five states that have no hate-crimes laws at allGeorgia, Arkansas, South Carolina, Wyoming and Indiana. We wanted to go to those places and say, now, for the first time, there's hate-crime protection. We had training conferences to educate local law enforcement.
We've also gone to jurisdictions that have shown an interest in doing this kind of training. We had a hate-crimes training here in Chicago, which we co-sponsored with Attorney General [Lisa] Madigan's office. We've been to California, Texas, New York, Boston … and many jurisdictions throughout the country.
WCT: And how is law enforcement responding? Have you seen results?
Matt Nosanchuk: We did training in Arkansas and, sometime after, a hate crime occurred. Someone who had been at the conference recognized this incident as a potential violation of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. law, and it ended up being one of the first cases where we achieved conviction.
It was really important because it addresses the community concern that inevitably results from a hate crime. There's a level of fear and a desire to see a strong response that shows your supported by law enforcement. People need to have trust [in police], and if you have a police department that has a history of harassing the LGBT community, that just doesn't work.
WCT: What else has the Justice Department been working on?
Matt Nosanchuk: We've been doing a lot of work with the Department of Education on Title IX and the Civil Rights Act. That basically empowers us to hold school districts legally responsible when they fail to address harassment that occurs on the basis of various characteristics, including the sex or sexual orientation of students. ... LGBT students have been bullied because they fail to conform to gender stereotypes, like a boy who's been bullied because he's effeminate or a girl who's bullied because she comes across as masculine. Where this type of bullying has occurred in schools and the district hasn't done anything about it, [we step in].
WCT: What's in the works for 2012?
Matt Nosanchuk: We're looking to continue to identify ways in which we can use existing legislation. The prospect for getting new LGBT protections through Congress … I don't want to pre-judge it, but it's going to be an uphill battle.
The executive branch does have opportunities to use regulatory power, whether its requiring hospitals [to provide] visitation rights for same-sex partners or enforcing anti-discrimination rules.
We're looking at how we can use that authority to advance and expand rights for LGBT individuals. At the civil-rights division, we want to continue to work on bullying issues. ... It's a problem that's receiving a lot of attention, but there's still a lot more work to be done. People still need to step up to the plate.
WCT: Part of your job entails meeting with LGBT community leaders. How have people received you?
Matt Nosanchuk: At times, the LGBT community has definitely challenged the administration, and they've put me on the hot seat. As president Obama has said, he doesn't expect people who are pushing for civil rights to be patient. And it's not for him to tell them to be patient. So he expects that the community will continue to press and advance rights to areas needed.
That being said, the Obama administration has taken historic steps to further the civil rights of LGBT individuals with moves like repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and passing a hate-crimes law.
The administration has also been able to impact the lives of LGBT individuals on a smaller scale with measures like creating a grant program for LGBT foster care, developing jobs for LGBT liaisons and funding a resource center for LGBT seniors.
It doesn't necessarily make it to the top page, but it has a real impact on the lives of individuals who are affected.