Advocating for All
Activist Yetta Kurland campaigns for inclusion
By Jennifer Kitses
Yetta Kurland (MA ’94, BA ’90), a civil rights attorney and activist, is used to waging battles on multiple fronts. She’s a vice president of the New York City chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, and has been closely involved in the fight against the NYPD’s policy of stop-and-frisk. She’s the founder and senior partner of The Kurland Group, a boutique firm focused on LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights, through which she also represents a number of elected officials who were arrested during the Occupy Wall Street protests, as well as low-income tenants who have been sued by landlords. And she’s on the board of a community group that fights street harassment.
Though Kurland is perhaps best known as an advocate for the LGBT community, what is most important to her is building bridges among underrepresented groups. “It’s very easy to fight for your own interests,” she says. “But what I think has been truly transformative for me is to get outside of myself and fight for others.”
In fact, while Kurland founded her firm in 2001 to focus on such issues as marriage equality and domestic partner rights, one of her greatest victories is a settlement she won in 2013 on behalf of five ranking female members of the New York City Fire Department’s Emergency Medical Service. “Some of these women were first responders at 9/11, and had worked for the FDNY for 20 or 30 years,” she says. “They were unsung heroes and weren’t being paid or promoted fairly. So it was great to win a victory for them, and to change the way that promotional practices happen within the FDNY.”
Kurland credits her background in women’s studies at UB with giving her an understanding of some of the broader questions she faces today. “When I was a women’s studies major, there weren’t a lot of queer-theory programs or the kinds of interdisciplinary programs that explore these issues,” she says. “Feminism was a vehicle that allowed these discussions to happen, and that connected dots between gender and race and sexual orientation. I think that was kind of the beginning of what we see today in terms of social advocacy. Ideas and politics have developed, but some core ideas have stayed the same.”
In 2013, Kurland competed in the Democratic primary for a seat on the New York City Council and lost. That followed an unsuccessful primary bid in 2009 for the seat held by then-City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. The defeats haven’t set her back. “I ran for office, and that was a great experience,” she says. Would she run again? She laughs; for now, at least, she’s concentrating on her legal work. “I’m happy to be doing social advocacy, both as an attorney and as a community organizer. But who knows what the future holds?”