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Gay doctoral student files sexual harassment lawsuit against Columbia University

Alberto Leguina Ruzzi claims the school wrongly terminated him

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Gay News, Washington Blade, Sexual Harassment, Gay Chile

Alberto Leguina Ruzzi (Photo courtesy of Alberto Leguina Ruzzi)

A gay Chilean doctoral student claims in a lawsuit against Columbia University that he was unfairly fired from his job after complaining that a supervisor sexually harassed him.

Alberto Leguina Ruzzi, 25, alleges that Dr. Qais Al-Awqati, a professor at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons sent him a picture of himself from Grindr on March 9, eight days after he began working at Columbia University Medical Center in Manhattan. He claims that Al-Awqati asked him whether “he would date an older man.” Leguina said that he rejected his advances.

“I have many guys as beautiful and as young as you,” responded Al-Awqati to Leguina, according to the lawsuit his lawyer filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on July 27. “So it is not a joke. You need to have better manners when in New York. Maybe in Argentina or Chile, you are a spoiled Mamma’s boy.”

“It was an awkward situation because it was my first week,” Leguina, a PhD candidate in biology at Chile’s Catholic University, told the Blade from New York City. He said that he specifically asked to work directly with Al-Awqati when he applied for a grant to come to Columbia. “I never thought someone I admired like Al-Awqati would do this.”

Immediately after he said he declined the proposition, Leguina said that Al-Awqati came out of his office and screamed “You are out!” He said he suffered what he described as a panic attack and began to cry because he thought he had been fired. The lawsuit claims that Leguina’s other direct supervisor, Rosemary Sampogna, witnessed the incident and assured him that she would work to ensure that he kept his job. Leguina further claims that she said she would report the incident to the hospital’s Department of Human Resources.

The lawsuit states that Leguina discussed it with Mayra Marte-Miraz, director of operations for Columbia’s Department of Medicine, on March 15. Leguina claims that she told him that he “needed to continue working as if nothing happened.” He further alleges Marte-Miraz told him four days later that he needed to “deal with this matter as a big man” and he “must pretend that nothing happened.”

Marte-Miraz allegedly told Leguina that he would have not declined Al-Awqati’s advances if he was “young and pretty.” The lawsuit states that she further threatened to send him back to Chile if he discussed the incident with an attorney, his Chilean supervisors or any other officials in the South American country.

Leguina claims that Al-Awqati subsequently apologized and gave him a Mac Book computer. The lawsuit further alleges that he told him to “pretend that nothing happened.” Leguina said he told Marte-Miraz that Al-Awqati had apologized to him and he said she assured him that she would perform what she described as a full investigation into the alleged incident.

Following that meeting; Leguina said that Sampogna, whom he said had previously praised his work, began to call him “useless.” The lawsuit notes that she told him he was “incapable of troubleshooting” and “incapable of doing his job.” And it further alleges that Sampogna kicked furniture, used profanity and abruptly dropped his research material when Leguina asked her for help.

Leguina further alleges that both she and Al-Awqati made his job “virtually impossible.”

Marte-Miraz accused Leguina during a May 10 meeting of posting derogatory messages about Sampogna on his Facebook page, according to the lawsuit. Leguina said he provided her with a copy of his Facebook transcript that he claims disputed her allegations.

“Your mind is clouded and your stress is simply because you are from a small country and this is New York and you just need to learn,” responded Marte-Miraz, according to the lawsuit.

Leguina said Marte-Miraz suggested that he meet with Sampogna to discuss ways that he could improve his work — she was unavailable, so he said he was forced to meet with Al-Awqati himself. The lawsuit claims that he told Leguina that, among other things, he had a poor work ethic and had been absent. It notes that Al-Awqati had private weekly meetings with Leguina, during which he was required to show his work and provide a report. The lawsuit further claims that Al-Awqati “awkwardly expressed how impressed he was” with Leguina’s “skills and intelligence” during these meetings.

Leguina alleges that he was forced to take prescription medications to help him cope with the stress, anxiety and insomnia he said he was experiencing. He said also e-mailed one of his Chilean supervisors to discuss the situation with him.

Al-Awqati allegedly sent her a “derogatory e-mail” that criticized his performance. In spite of these claims, Leguina received an award and positive comments about his Columbia work during the American Society of Hypertension’s annual meeting.

Leguina said his Chilean supervisors told him on June 8 that he had to step down and return to Chile based on Al-Awqati’s feedback. The lawsuit claims that Al-Awqati initially questioned the decision in follow-up e-mail to Leguina, but again criticized his work in a follow-up meeting. It further alleges that Al-Awqati “suddenly got very nervous” when Leguina raised his sexual advances and subsequent retaliation with him.

“It has nothing to do with that, but if you need to return to Chile, then just go,” said Al-Awqati, according to the lawsuit.

Leguina was fired on June 12.

“Maybe I was ready to deal with rats in my apartment or New York stuff, but not sexual harassment,” Leguina told the Blade. “I knew I couldn’t just let this go. I couldn’t just leave.”

Columbia has yet to formally respond to the lawsuit, and declined to comment on the allegations. Leguina, who seeks unspecified monetary damages, said he hopes his decision to come forward sends a message to those who suffer sexual harassment in the workplace.

“It’s about some kind of awareness,” he said. “You cannot let these [things] happen anymore. I know I’m not the first person, but I hope I can be the last person.”

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Federal Government

EXCLUSIVE: Robert Garcia urges US officials to protect LGBTQ people during Pride Month

Gay Calif. congressman sent letter to top authorities on June 12

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Participants of the Capital Pride Festival in D.C. on June 8, 2024. Gay U.S. Congressman Robert Garcia (D-Calif.) has urged U.S. officials to ensure LGBTQ people are safe during Pride Month. (Washington Blade photo by Emily Hanna)

U.S. Rep. Robert Garcia (D-Calif.) on June 12 sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, and Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray to work to ensure LGBTQ people during Pride events.

“Over the last several weeks, your respective agencies and departments have issued stark warnings, and travel advisories to the public over potential threats from foreign terrorist organizations (FTO), and their supporters during this year’s Pride Month,” said Garcia in his letter. “I understand that these steps have come after deeply concerning increases in anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, calls for targeted violence, and foiled violent plots.”

The FBI on May 10 issued an advisory that warned of potential violence at Pride events and other LGBTQ-specific events. The State Department on May 17 — the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia — announced a similar warning.

“Ensuring that people can peacefully and safely celebrate Pride and the diversity of the LGBTQ+ community is of utmost importance,” wrote Garcia, a gay man who represents California’s 42nd Congressional District that includes Long Beach.

June 12 also marked eight years since a gunman killed 49 people inside the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla.

The massacre at the time was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. The gunman pledged his allegiance to the Islamic State, even though there is no evidence that suggests the extremist group ordered him to carry out the massacre. 

“This week marks the eight (sp) anniversary of the horrific Pulse nightclub Orlando shooting — during which the attacker deliberately and viciously targeted the LGBTQ+ community,” wrote Garcia in his letter. “It is important to put the recent escalation of extremist anti-LGBTQ+ propaganda and messaging in the context the Pulse nightclub shooter who was influenced by these same forces of extremism.”

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U.S. Federal Courts

Title IX protections blocked in six more states

Ruling applies to Va.

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(Bigstock photo)

BY McKENNA HORSLEY | A federal judge has blocked new Title IX rules, including those aimed at protecting LGBTQ students from discrimination in K-12 schools, and sided with Republican attorneys general in several states — including Kentucky. 

Chief Judge Danny Reeves of the U.S. District Court in Eastern Kentucky on Monday issued a ruling siding with Republican Attorney General Russell Coleman and his counterparts in five other states. The ruling prevents the U.S. Department of Education from “implementing, enacting, enforcing, or taking any action to enforce the Final Rule, Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Sex in Education Programs or Activities Receiving Federal Financial Assistance,” which was set to begin Aug. 1. 

Kentucky Attorney General Russell Coleman (Kentucky Lantern photo by Mathew Mueller)

Coleman and the GOP attorneys general filed the lawsuit in April. At the time, they argued the Department of Education “used rulemaking power to convert a law designed to equalize opportunities for both sexes into a far broader regime of its own making” with the new Title IX regulations. 

Reeves limited the injunction to the plaintiff states of Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Virginia and West Virginia.

The Biden administration introduced the rules to “build on the legacy of Title IX by clarifying that all our nation’s students can access schools that are safe, welcoming, and respect their rights,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement. The rules also would have rolled back Trump administration changes that narrowly defined sexual harassment and directed schools to conduct live hearings, allowing those who were accused of sexual harassment or assault to cross-examine their accusers.

President Joe Biden with U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. (Official White House photo by Adam Schultz)

In their complaint, the state attorneys general said that under the Biden rule, “Men who identify as women will, among other things, have the right to compete within programs and activities that Congress made available to women so they can fairly and fully pursue academic and athletic excellence — turning Title IX’s protections on their head … And anyone who expresses disagreement with this new status quo risks Title IX discipline for prohibited harassment.” 

Established in 1972, Title IX was created to prevent “discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance,” according to the Department of Education.

Reeves wrote in his opinion that “the Department of Education seeks to derail deeply rooted law” created by the implementation of Title IX. 

“At bottom, the department would turn Title IX on its head by redefining ‘sex’ to include ‘gender identity.’ But ‘sex’ and ‘gender identity’ do not mean the same thing,” he wrote. “The department’s interpretation conflicts with the plain language of Title IX and therefore exceeds its authority to promulgate regulations under that statute.” 

In a press release, Coleman’s office said Monday that schools that would fail to comply with the new rules would risk losing federal funding. Citing the Department of Education, the office said Kentucky’s public and private schools received a total of $1.1 billion in federal funding last year.

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“As a parent and as attorney general, I joined this effort to protect our women and girls from harm. Today’s ruling recognized the 50-plus years of educational opportunities Title IX has created for students and athletes,” Coleman said in the press release. “We’re grateful for the court’s ruling, and we will continue to fight the Biden administration’s attempts to rip away protections to advance its political agenda.”

A spokesperson for the department said it was reviewing the ruling.

“Title IX guarantees that no person experience sex discrimination in a federally-funded educational environment,” the spokesperson added. “The department crafted the final Title IX regulations following a rigorous process to realize the Title IX statutory guarantee. The department stands by the final Title IX regulations released in April 2024, and we will continue to fight for every student.”

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McKenna Horsley

McKenna Horsley covers state politics for the Kentucky Lantern. She previously worked for newspapers in Huntington, W.Va., and Frankfort, Ky. She is from northeastern Kentucky.

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The preceding story was previously published by the Kentucky Lantern and is republished with permission.

The Kentucky Lantern is an independent, nonpartisan, free news service based in Frankfort a short walk from the Capitol, but all of Kentucky is our beat.

We focus on how decisions made in the marble halls of power ripple through the lives of Kentuckians. We bring attention to injustices and hold institutions and officials accountable. We tell the stories of Kentuckians who are making a difference and shine a light on what’s working. Our journalism is aimed at building a fairer, healthier Kentucky for all. 

Kentucky Lantern is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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The White House

Press secretary reaffirms the administration’s commitment to advancing LGBTQ rights

Karine Jean-Pierre also highlighted mental health efforts

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White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre (Washington Blade photo by Christopher Kane)

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre began her briefing with reporters on Monday by honoring Pride Month as a time to “reflect on the progress we have made in pursuit of equality, justice, inclusion” and “recommit ourselves to do more to support LGBTQI+ rights at home and around the world.”

She said that while the Biden-Harris administration has taken “historic action” to expand freedoms and protections for the community “since day one,” state legislatures last year filed more than 600 anti-LGBTQ bills, which disproportionately target transgender youth.

Not only are conservative state lawmakers potentially on track to surpass that number in 2024, but Republican members of Congress along with the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Donald Trump, have pledged their support for at least a dozen anti-LGBTQ policies at the federal level.

Jean-Pierre said this administration “is going to continue to speak out and stand up against these attacks,” adding, “as President Biden says, these young [transgender and queer] people are some of the bravest people he knows, but no one should have to be brave just to be themselves.”

The press secretary concluded her opener by discussing the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, which provides a “line dedicated to serving LGBTQI+ young people that can be reached by dialing nine eight and pressing three.”

Afterwards, when fielding questions from reporters, Jean-Pierre noted how many of the challenges facing LGBTQ youth have dovetailed with the ongoing mental health crisis in America.

She also addressed a ruling on Monday that blocked the administration’s newly passed LGBTQ-inclusive Title IX rules, which clarify that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is covered by the statute’s language barring sex discrimination in education programs and activities that receive federal assistance.

A Trump-appointed judge on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana had issued an injunction against the regulations on Thursday, with a handful of Republican state attorneys general promising more legal challenges.

Declining to address specific legal questions that she noted are best directed to the Justice Department, Jean-Pierre stressed the need for students to feel safe and to be treated equally.

“That is why the protections are all about making sure students have equal rights restored,” she said.

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