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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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The White House

Biden’s Pride month proclamation: ‘Our nation faces another inflection point’

States across the country have passed anti-LGBTQ laws

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The White House was lit in rainbow colors following the Respect for Marriage Act signing in December 2022. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Just as the 1969 Stonewall riots marked a transformational time for LGBTQ civil rights in America, the country now faces another critical inflection point, President Joe Biden said in the White House’s proclamation Wednesday honoring Pride month.

This moment is precipitated by the wave of hateful anti-LGBTQ legislation moving through state and local legislatures across the country and amid the escalating violence and threats of violence against the community, the statement notes:

“In 2023 alone, state and local legislatures have already introduced over 600 hateful laws targeting the LGBTQI+ community. Books about LGBTQI+ people are being banned from libraries. Transgender youth in over a dozen states have had their medically necessary health care banned. Homophobic and transphobic vitriol spewed online has spilled over into real life, as armed hate groups intimidate people at Pride marches and drag performances, and threaten doctors’ offices and children’s hospitals that offer care to the LGBTQI+ community. Our hearts are heavy with grief for the loved ones we have lost to anti-LGBTQI+ violence.”

Biden drew parallels between the “LGBTQI+ protestors” who “bravely stood their ground” against the law enforcement dispatched to arrest them more than 50 years ago and the youth organizers leading walkouts in response to discriminatory education laws, along with the “young people and their parents [who] are demonstrating unimaginable courage by testifying in state capitols in defense of their basic rights.”

The statement reaffirms the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to standing “proudly with the LGBTQI+ community in the enduring struggle for freedom, justice and equality,” chronicling some of the major steps the administration has taken on this front.

Biden highlighted his issuance, on his first day in office, of an executive order prohibiting anti-LGBTQ discrimination, along with his signage last year of the Respect for Marriage Act, which codified protects for the rights of same-sex couples that might otherwise be jeopardized by the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority.

The statement then noted the administration’s moves to protect LGBTQ youth by ordering federal agencies to: Combat conversion therapy, “end the crisis of homelessness among LGBTQI+ youth and adults,” and address anti-LGBTQ discrimination in foster care.

Meanwhile, Biden said, the Justice Department is fighting against discriminatory laws targeting transgender youth, while the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services have drafted rules that would better protect anti-LGBTQ discrimination “in healthcare, at school and in sports” and the White House is developing ways to combat online harassment and abuse that “disproportionately target LGBTQ people.”

Finally, the White House noted: Its rollout last year of the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline for LGBTQ youth, who can now reach specially trained counselors by dialing 988 and then three; the administration’s appointment of historic numbers of LGBTQ appointees at all levels of the federal government; and its repeal of bans preventing trans people from serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.

From passing federal nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ Americans via the Equality Act to addressing “the crisis of violence against transgender women and girls of color,” Biden acknowledged the work that lies ahead.

“This month and every month,” his proclamation concludes, “let us celebrate the pride that powers the movement for LGBTQI+ rights and commit to doing our part to help realize the promise of America, for all Americans.”

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Pentagon

Defense secretary orders cancellation of drag show at Nev. Air Force base

Event was to have taken place at Nellis AFB on Thursday

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Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force Public Affairs)

A previously scheduled drag show to kick off Pride month on the sprawling Nellis Air Force Base, an advanced combat aviation training facility for the U.S. Air Force northeast of Las Vegas, was cancelled Wednesday according to a Pentagon official, after U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stepped in.

A Pentagon source familiar with the matter told the Washington Blade that Milley informed Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., that it is not Pentagon policy to fund drag shows on bases and the show needed to be canceled or moved off base. 

The issue over drag performances was a focus at a House Armed Services Committee hearing earlier this year on March 29, when anti-LGBTQ Congressman Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) demanded in an angry tone that Austin and Milley explain why drag queen story hours were being hosted on U.S. military installations. The Florida Republican mentioned bases in Montana, Nevada, Virginia and Germany.

In a highly publicized incident in May 2022, Stars and Stripes reported that the Commanding General of the 86th Airlift Wing at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany had a drag queen story time, that was to be held in honor of Pride month cancelled. 

According to Stars and Stripes, the 86th Air Wing’s public affairs sent a statement to a radical-right anti-LGBTQ news outlet in Canada, the Post Millennial, which had requested comment to its article about the event and also accused the Air Force of pushing a more “woke” agenda among servicemen. 

In a press release, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) took partial credit for the cancellation.

Rubio sent a letter to U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall regarding the Air Force Library at Ramstein hosting a “Drag Queen Story Time” event for young children of servicemembers. 

Rubio urged him to cancel the event, discipline the staff involved in planning and hosting the event and respond to questions on whether other installations both at home and around the world have done similar events. Following receipt of Rubio’s letter, the Air Force canceled the event. 

“The last thing parents serving their nation overseas should be worried about, particularly in a theater with heightened geopolitical tensions, is whether their children are being exposed to sexually charged content simply because they visited their local library,” Rubio wrote.

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin, III, and Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, meet with U.S. Army Gen. Scott Miller at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on July 14, 2021. (Photo by Carlos M. Vazquez, Department of Defense)

A Pentagon official referring to the drag show at Nellis said Milley was visibly angry about the decision to host the event on base after being informed about it earlier this week.

The drag show was scheduled for Thursday, but Maj. Gen. Case A. Cunningham, the commander of the U.S. Air Force Warfare Center at Nellis was informed in the past few days that it must either be canceled or moved off base. 

On May 23, Gaetz sent a letter to Austin and Milley, alleging that the “pervasive and persistent use of taxpayer dollars for drag events,” had a June 1 Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., event scheduled.

Gaetz went on to write that “Nellis Air Force Base has announced a so-called ‘family-friendly’ drag organized by the Nellis LGBTQ+ Pride Council for June 1, 2023. In this latest outright attack on children, this event is being advertised as having no minimum age requirement.” 

In his letter Gaetz also demanded to know: 

  • Does the DoD feel it’s appropriate for children to attend a sexualized drag performance?
  • Why are base commanders defying your intent and direction by facilitating drag events?
  • If this event goes forward, whether on June 1 or a later scheduled date, please provide an explanation regarding your justification for why you allowed the event to take place.

According to a spokesperson for the U.S. Air Force Warfare Center, Nellis, in June 2021 the base had hosted a Pride month drag show titled “Drag-u-Nellis.” The spokesperson noted the 2021 show was intended to promote inclusivity and diversity. 

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Alabama

Ala. extends ban on transgender female athletes to universities

Republican Gov. Kay Ivey signed bill on Tuesday

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Alabama Capitol (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Governor Kay Ivey on Tuesday signed House Bill 261, which limits transgender students to playing sports in public colleges and universities only with “their biological sex assigned at birth.”

“Look, if you are a biological male, you are not going to be competing in women’s and girls’ sports in Alabama. It’s about fairness, plain and simple,”  said Ivey in a statement released by her office.

House Bill 261 was approved 26-4 in the Alabama Senate and 83-5 in the House of Representatives. In the vote in the House more than a dozen lawmakers abstained from the vote.

Ivey had previously signed legislation in 2021 banning trans female athletes from competing in K-12 girls sports. At the time she signed that bill the governor had noted that “Alabama remains committed to protecting female athletes at all levels and upholding the integrity of athletics.”

Carmarion D. Anderson-Harvey, Alabama state director of the Human Rights Campaign, said the legislation is part of a “systematic attack against LGBTQ+ people” in Alabama and elsewhere.

“In just two years, [Ivey] and extremist lawmakers in Alabama have passed four anti-LGBTQ+ bills. From dictating what bathrooms we can use to blatantly ignoring the actual problems in women’s sports, these politicians are making Alabama an increasingly hostile place for transgender people and the LGBTQ+ community as a whole,” Anderson-Harvey said.

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