Tsion Gurmu ’15, OUTLaw Alumna of the Year, channels her own harrowing immigration experience into her advocacy work

OUTLaw, NYU Law’s organization for LGBTQ students and their allies, gave the OUTLaw Alumna of the Year Award to Tsion Gurmu ’15, legal director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, at its annual alumni reception on January 23.

In a compelling speech, Gurmu, who is also founder and director of the Queer Black immigrant project (QBip), explained why she has made a career of pursuing social justice, citing her own experiences of facing political repression and immigrating.

While she was growing up in Ethiopia under a military junta, Gumru said, she and her family became prisoners of war after armed conflict engulfed her community. “My family often wondered how the world could sit idly by as we suffered brutality and injustice at the hands of our self-proclaimed leaders,” she recalled. “‘Where were the advocates,’ we often wondered to ourselves, ‘and why was the rest of the world silent?’”

The evening also included a panel discussion, “From Stonewall to the Rainbow Wave: Reflecting on 50 Years of LGBTQ Activism,” in which participants considered how activists’ strategies have evolved since the Stonewall riots of 1969 sparked the modern LGBTQ rights movement. Hannah Howard ’20, OUTLaw’s political action co-chair, moderated an exchange among Kate Barnhart, executive director of New Alternatives for LGBTQ+ Homeless Youth; Kate Bornstein, an author, playwright, performance artist, and gender theorist; Adam Eli, founder of Voices4; and Jessica Raven, executive director of the Audre Lorde Project. Panelists touched on the broadening definition of activism; the proliferation of teen suicide and homelessness; a growing consciousness of the interconnectedness of global LGBTQ populations, especially in light of human rights abuses in places such as Chechnya, Tanzania, and Egypt; the marginalization of activists of color; and how the “mainstreaming” of LGBTQ culture can create divisions within the LGBTQ community.

Some of these themes are reflected in the career of OUTLaw honoree Gurmu, who at the Black Alliance for Just Immigration works at a national level to unite black voices advocating for equality and justice for immigrant communities. While a legal fellow at the African Services Committee, she founded QBip, a black radical lawyering initiative, to provide comprehensive legal representation to LGBTQIA+ black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean, along with a corresponding storytelling project to help clients reclaim their voices. Gurmu was recognized last year by Forbes in its 30 Under 30 list in the law and policy category.

In her remarks, Gurmu recalled that her father, who had been a democracy advocate in Ethiopia, fled to Atlanta, where he found a sympathetic lawyer who had escaped persecution in Lebanon; she helped the family obtain asylum.

“This attorney renewed my family’s faith in humanity and my confidence in the notion of justice,” said Gurmu. “My life experiences have taught me time and time again that well-trained advocates not only have the power to help individuals obtain justice in whatever form that may take, but they also have the capacity to demand radical social and legal change.”

Relocating to the US did not solve every problem, Gumru noted. One inspiration for founding QBip, apart from her family’s experience, was to combat “the homophobia that’s so toxic and pervasive in African diaspora communities,” she said. “Even after escaping extraordinary forms of repression and violence based on sexuality and gender identity, most LGBTI black immigrants are faced with all-new anti-immigrant, racist, homophobic, and transphobic sentiments even here in the US. Undocumented black immigrants are also at great risk of deportation as they encounter the double bind of anti-black policing and racist immigration laws and policies.”

The relationships Gurmu made at NYU Law empowered her, she added. During law school, she worked as a legal aid advocate at Defence for Children International’s International Secretariat and represented clients as a student in the Advanced Immigrant Rights Clinic.

“In order to dismantle the multilayered systems of oppression faced by our communities,” she asserted, “it is imperative to work intersectionally and to invest in movements that raise the voices and demands of the most marginalized…. We have an extraordinary opportunity to bend the legal profession closer to justice.”

Posted February 5, 2019