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Gay men arrested for attempting to smuggle drugs on cruise ship

Reports say both work for U.S. gov’t contractors; ship part of gay cruise

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Peter Melendez (left) and Robert Koehler were arrested Sunday. (Photos courtesy Miami Police Department)

A tip from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security enabled Miami police on Sunday, Feb. 3, to arrest two D.C. gay men as they allegedly attempted to smuggle in their luggage illegal drugs on board a cruise ship in the port of Miami, according to a police arrest affidavit filed in court.

The affidavit says a DHS special agent informed police that DHS intercepted an email exchange between D.C. residents and roommates Peter Melendez, 36, and Robert Koehler, 27, in which the two men allegedly conspired to smuggle drugs on board the cruise ship with the intent to distribute them to passengers.

Police charging documents show the two men are residents of a house on the 700 block of Harvard St., N.W. in the District’s Columbia Heights neighborhood. City property records show that Melendez owns the house.

The documents show Melendez was charged with conspiracy to traffic in illegal drugs and trafficking illegal drugs. Koehler was charged with trafficking illegal drugs.

The charging documents show the two men were initially held without bond in the Miami detention center with a notation dated Feb. 3 stating “NO BOND” – “DO NOT RELEASE.”

A clerk with the Miami-Dade County Circuit Court told the Blade on Wednesday that both men were released on bond the next day on Feb. 4. Bond for Melendez was set at $7,500 and Koehler’s bond was set at $30,000, the clerk said. Both men are scheduled to appear for an arraignment on March 5, court records show.

According to the arrest affidavit, “co-defendant Melendez is a current contract employee for the U.S. government.” It says “several pages” of emails exchanged between Melendez and Koehler in which they planned to distribute drugs on the ship were intercepted by DHS through Melendez’s “government computer.”

It says that during a routine K-9 search of passengers at the port prior to passengers boarding their cruise ship both Melendez and Koehler’s luggage “alerted” positive for narcotics. It says a further search by Custom Border Protection (CBC) officers found various quantities of various controlled substances in each of the men’s luggage.

Among the findings in both their luggage were approximately 27 grams of suspected MDMA, known as ecstasy; 18 grams of Ketamine; and 246 grams of suspected GHB. Also found in Melendez’s luggage were five grams of Adderall, a prescription amphetamine; and seven grams of Viagra, the arrest affidavit says.

The police charging documents and the arrest affidavit don’t identify the cruise ship by name. But at least two news media outlets – The Chesapeake Today, which covers crime related stories, and the British tabloid the Daily Mail – reported they learned from police the ship was the Royal Caribbean line’s Allure of the Seas, which was embarking on an all-gay, seven-day cruise to the Bahamas and Mexico.

The website of the company that organizes Atlantis gay cruises, which arranges LGBT cruises on large cruise ships, promoted the cruise on which Melendez and Koehler allegedly conspired to sell drugs as “the world’s largest all-gay cruise” which was to include “5,400 guys from over 60 different nations.”

Neither Melendez nor Koehler or their attorney identified in court papers as Kevin Gardiner could immediately be reached for comment.

On his Facebook page Melendez says he has worked since 2009 as a “jack of all trades” at the U.S. Pentagon.

People who know him told the Blade he competed in and won in D.C.’s annual Miss Adams Morgan drag pageant in 2016 or 2017.

The Miami Herald reported that Koehler also works in D.C. as a federal government contractor, but that designation was not disclosed in preliminary court documents or the arrest affidavit.

The Atlantis cruise, which Melendez and Koehler were attempting to board, is known to attract the gay circuit party crowd that has a reputation for recreational drug use among some of its adherents.

“It’s important for people to know that the circuit scene is tight knit, looks after one another, cares for each other and simply chooses to party in a different way than the drinking crowd,” said D.C. gay activist Lane Hudson. “It would be nice if the law allowed for this, but for now, it doesn’t. That means that situations like this sometimes occur,” he said.

“I’ve known Peter for 7-8 years and he’s always been a wonderful member of our community,” said Hudson. “He is loving, caring, well-liked and one heck of a drag queen. I hope he comes out of the other side of this in a good way. He certainly wasn’t out to harm anyone.”

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Florida

Florida prohibits Medicaid reimbursement for trans healthcare

Lambda Legal tells the LA Blade its “exploring all possible avenues for challenging this discriminatory rulemaking”

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Photo Credit: Equality Florida

TALLAHASSEE – On Thursday, Florida officially joined the roster of conservative states whose Medicaid programs carve out coverage exemptions for transgender related healthcare, including gender-affirming therapies for young people. 

Against the guidance of mainstream medical opinion, the state’s Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) ratified new rules prohibiting taxpayer reimbursement for puberty blockers, hormone therapies, or surgical procedures to treat gender dysphoria. 

“We are exploring all possible avenues for challenging this discriminatory rulemaking,” wrote Carl Charles, senior attorney at Lambda Legal, in an emailed statement to The Los Angeles Blade. “Lambda Legal has secured victories on this issue in other states such as Alaska (Being v. Crum), and just this month in our case, Fain v. Crouch, in West Virginia.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and its Florida Chapter (FCAAP) wrote in an emailed statement to The Blade that they were “disheartened” by AHCA’s finalization of rules blocking Medicaid coverage for gender affirming care: 

“The state’s interference with the physician-patient relationship and its prohibition of this vital care will negatively impact Floridians who are trying to live their lives as their true, healthiest selves. As pediatricians, our only goal is to work with families and provide our patients with the best evidence-based care possible. When necessary and appropriate, that includes gender-affirming care. The AAP and FCAAP will continue to stand up in support of all young people, including those who are transgender.”

The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services did not return a request for comment in time for publication. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Also on Thursday, Florida’s AHCA inaccurately accused HHS and the AAP of misleading the public about the safety of transgender related healthcare, though it was not the first time the state’s health agency has butted up against its federal counterparts and associations of medical practitioners. 

AHCA previously issued a bulletin in April that prompted rebukes from groups including the Endocrine Society, which accused AHCA of spreading misinformation about healthcare treatments for transgender people, including youth. The bulletin’s contents also conflicted with official positions on these matters held by HHS. 

A coalition of legal advocacy organizations including Lambda Legal immediately condemned the AHCA’s latest move in a joint statement Thursday, writing: “Ignoring thousands of public comments and expert testimony, Florida’s AHCA has finalized a rule that will deny Medicaid coverage for all medically necessary gender-affirming care for both youth and adults. This discriminatory and medically unsound rule will take effect on August 21, 2022, putting transgender people in jeopardy of losing access to critical gender-affirming health care services.”

The statement also took aim at Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis: “AHCA’s actions, at the behest of Governor DeSantis and his political appointees, are morally and legally wrong as well as medically and scientifically unsound. This rule represents a dangerous escalation in Governor DeSantis’s political zeal to persecute LGBTQ+ people in Florida, and particularly transgender youth.”

The Movement Advancement Project publishes a chart tracking state-by-state Medicaid coverage for transgender-related care, which is a patchwork of different exemptions and carveouts that generally maps onto the extent to which each leans conservative. 

Much like with other public health insurance programs like state employee health plans, discriminatory state Medicaid programs have often been the subject of litigation challenging them, in lawsuits that are often successful.

Nikole Parker, Equality Florida’s Director of Transgender Equality in an emailed statement said:

“Just over one week from today, Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration, at the behest of Governor DeSantis, plans to strip thousands of vulnerable Floridians of their health care. Transgender people have been accessing gender-affirming care through Medicaid for years. That care is now being shut off by a state agency that has been corrupted, weaponized, and stacked with extremists by a governor desperate to fuel his own political ambitions.

Today, more than 9,000 transgender Floridians access care through Medicaid. On August 21, the state government will put  that care on the chopping block. As further evidence for his complete disregard for the health and well being of transgender Floridians, the DeSantis Administration has done nothing to quantify or assess the terrible impact this rule would have on the thousands of transgender people who rely on Medicaid for their care. The transgender community, like all people, shouldn’t have necessary, life-saving care stripped away by extremist politicians working overtime to stoke right-wing fervor. This brazen, politically-motivated attack is cruel, dangerous and puts the health of thousands at risk.”

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Virginia

Virginia’s Gov. Youngkin will force teachers to out their LGBTQ+ students

“I firmly believe that teachers and schools have an obligation to make sure that parents are well informed”

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Virginia Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin (Screenshot/YouTube CBS News)

RICHMOND – Virginia Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin affirmed his support on Tuesday for measures that would require teachers to notify parents of their children’s sexual orientation or gender identity, regardless of the students’ consent. 

The move was justified under the pretext of protecting “parental rights,” a specious argument that has given cover to policies enacted by conservative legislatures across the country that target LGBTQ+ people, including students, in public schools. 

“With regards to informing parents with most important decisions about their children…Parents should be at the forefront of all of these discussions,” Youngkin told WJLA News. “And I firmly believe that teachers and schools have an obligation to make sure that parents are well informed about what’s happening in their kids’ lives.”

Critics, however, charge that coming out is an intensely personal act, that taking away a student’s ability to do so on their own terms can be psychologically damaging, intrusive, and hurtful. In some cases, for students whose parents or guardians might harbor anti-LGBTQ+ views, it can be dangerous. 

Lambda Legal reports between 20 and 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ+ and are “frequently rejected by their families or fleeing abusive long-term placements.” Forcibly outing young LGBTQ+ people can mean they will be forced to live on the streets. 

Notwithstanding Youngkin’s efforts to portray himself as a moderate when campaigning for governor, Tuesday’s statement follows a series of extreme rightward moves he has made with respect to education policies in the state that concern LGBTQ+ youth and subject matter. 

Florida’s controversial “Parental Rights in Education” bill, which critics termed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, was similarly premised on the right of parents to control the material to which their children will have access in school. 

In reality, the overbroad legislation prohibits any classroom discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity for students in certain grades, which could potentially lead to disciplinary action against a teacher who mentions their same-sex spouse. 

Youngkin has similarly taken aim at educational materials in public schools, such as by signing into law SB656, which requires parental notification of nebulously defined “sexually explicit content.” 

Just after taking office in January, he set up a “tip line” to solicit comments from Virginia parents on “divisive practices” or the inclusion of curricula and materials they may consider objectionable. 

Plaintiffs in multiple lawsuits, the most recent of which was filed on Monday, accuse Youngkin of violating public records laws by his refusal to share “tip line” emails with news media organizations.

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Vermont

Out Vermont state senator wins Democratic primary in U.S. House race

Tuesday’s victory makes her likely to become the first woman and openly LGBTQ+ person to represent the heavily Democratic state in Congress

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Screenshot via Becca Balint for Congress

MONTPELIER – The Green Mountain State’s state Senate president pro tempore has won the Democratic nomination for the state’s at-large congressional seat, the state’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Becca Balin is running to succeed U.S. Rep. Peter Welch and Tuesday’s victory makes her likely to become the first woman and openly LGBTQ+ person to represent the heavily Democratic state in Congress if elected in November. Vermont is the only state that has never had a female member of its congressional delegation.

The VTDigger, a statewide news website, reported; “Balint, 53, is the first openly gay woman elected to the Vermont Senate and the first woman to serve as its president. The former middle school teacher and stay-at-home mother won her first political contest in a race for her southeastern Vermont Senate seat in 2014

She rose quickly through the ranks of the Democrat-controlled chamber, becoming majority leader in 2017, at the start of her second term. Four years later, in 2021, she was elected pro tem — the top position in the Senate.”

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