August 25, 2014 | Volume XXII, Issue 2

Students lobby for equality in Tallahassee

Published: February 20th, 2012

Category: Feature, Students

Wihnyk, OUTLaw lobby in Tallahassee Max Wihnyk walked into a Florida state senator’s office Feb. 6 and pleaded.

The second-year UF Law student didn’t have big goals. He pleaded for the basics.

And while Wihnyk lives in a state where he can be fired from his job or evicted from his home just for being gay, the basics are all he’s got.

“It was definitely weird going into the office of a senator and telling him or her that these were basic human rights,” said Wihnyk, president of OUTLaw, UF Law’s LGBT advocacy group.

Wihnyk traveled to Tallahassee Feb. 6 with OUTLaw secretary Kathryn Brightbill (1L) to participate in Equality Florida’s Lobby Days 2012. The two-day event brings together members of Florida’s LGBTQ community with state legislators to discuss proposed bills.

Most of these bills fight for basic human rights. And most of these bills have to be lobbied, fought and pleaded for.

“I think the general population doesn’t know you can be denied housing for being gay or be fired for being gay,” Brightbill said. “Without making our legislators aware of this problem, it’s not going to move forward.”

Brightbill joined Wihnyk for his second Lobby Days at the state capital to fight for two proposed bills in particular: the Domestic Partnership Act and the Florida Competitive Workforce Act.

The Domestic Partnership Act would create basic legal protections for unmarried, cohabitating couples regardless of sexual orientation.

“It doesn’t give nearly the amount of benefits marriage gives. It would give the very basic benefits,” Wihnyk said.

Among those marriage benefits Wihnyk lists that he’s currently denied in Florida: automatic inheritance rights, a right to make spousal health care or child care decisions, the ability to file joint tax returns, obtaining insurance through a spouse and receiving Medicare or Social Security benefits of a spouse.

So Wihnyk lobbied for the basics.

He lobbied for the Florida Competitive Workforce Act, a bill that would make it illegal in Florida to fire an employee based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

“All we need is a few courageous senators, and it’ll happen,” Wihnyk said. “I hate to say courageous, but it’s true. A lot of senators don’t want to touch these things.”

And while Wihnyk’s busy lobbying for what many take for granted, light for the Sunshine State is glowing out West.

In a double dose of victories for Wihnyk and the LGBTQ community Feb. 8, Washington state legislators voted to approve same-sex marriage while the 9th United States Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Proposition 8, a California ballot initiative defining marriage strictly as a union between one man and one woman, to be unconstitutional.

That’s good news for Florida, Wihnyk said. That’s good news for getting more than just the basics.

While more than 62 percent of Florida voters decided in 2008 to amend the state constitution to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman, Wihnyk points to the legal limbo of California’s Proposition 8.

For now, the uncertainty of how far his basic human rights stretch is good news for Wihnyk. Ultimately, the United States Supreme Court, Wihnyk said, will decide the fate of California’s marriage amendment. That ruling will affect more than California – it will untangle the nation’s messy marriage web, and it will define how we define ourselves.

But for now, Wihnyk holds on to the basics. It’s all he has.

“It’s the small things (that matter),” he said.

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