It's an open secret that U.S. chief district Judge Vaughn Walker is gay. This has dismayed proponents of California's Proposition 8 all along, yet seems to have taken on desperate tones in light of his landmark ruling last week that denying lesbians and gay men the right to marry is patently unconstitutional. Advocates of Prop. 8 are certainly allowed to lick their wounds after such a precedent-setting decision, but the vitriol against Judge Walker is remarkable for both its personal animus and for the malice being shown toward all LGBT people.
Some on the right have gone so far as to characterize Walker as a pornographer and as a "teabagger" in its most literal and offensive sense. Some have suggested he is in cahoots with communists and polygamists. Conservative TV pundit Pat Buchanan said -- no doubt purposely utilizing the double entendre -- that "it is unnatural ... [that] an older white guy handed down the decision and that he happened to be gay." The American Family Association called Walker "a practicing homosexual" whose "sexual proclivity" compromised his judgment and was a basis for recusal. Not that Judge Walker's sexual orientation is actually a matter of public record. Perhaps the AFA has been following him around secretly, but all that has actually been reported about Walker's private life is a previous Los Angeles Times account that Walker "attends [legal] bar functions with a companion, a physician." That story doesn't even make note of his companion's gender.
There's apparently nothing left for conservatives to do at this important juncture -- besides filing the requisite appeal -- than to try to paint the silver-haired jurist as some kind of wacko-leftist-homo. Not only is Judge Walker being attacked; frankly, we're all being tarred as unfit to serve, unfit to be act professionally, and incapable of disassociating our brains from our genitalia. Of course, there's little new in these assertions and innuendos, but let us not forget for a minute that Judge Walker is simply the bull's-eye on the LGBT dartboard.
There's also a deeply disturbing double standard at play here. The now-65-year-old jurist came to the court decades ago under appointments by presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. At that time, no less solidly liberal a public figure than Nancy Pelosi opposed Walker's judicial nomination because of his "insensitivity" to LGBT people and the poor. Other Democrats objected to his role in preventing what are now known as the Gay Games from being called the Gay Olympics.
It's worth noting that, at the time, Vaughn Walker was presumed to be straight. But no one suggested that he -- or any other middle-aged white male judge -- recuse himself from cases where there may have been a perceived conflict of interest based on gender, age. or race. Now, since the last week's ruling, anti-marriage equality forces have been having a field day, with one blogger going so far as to suggest: "[Walker's] situation is no different that a judge who owns a porn studio being asked to rule on an anti-pornography statute. He'd have to recuse himself on conflict of interest grounds." Sure, financial conflicts of interest are always legitimate grounds for concern, but that's simply not the case here. And the questions must be raised: Would there have been any sort of outcry if Walker had been straight or perhaps an evangelical Christian -- and ruled in favor of Prop. 8? And, why would a straight jurist -- an "admitted heterosexual" -- necessarily be any more objective?
What we're looking for in judges -- gay or straight, black or white, male or female -- is an intellectual understanding of the law, the ability to be fair, and a willingness to put aside personal beliefs and perspectives when it comes to deciding cases. Judge Walker's long-standing record of being independent-minded, if not outright unpredictable, suggests he's that kind of judge. Based on his previous LGBT rulings, we might even have expected him to uphold Prop. 8. That he did not uphold it clarifies the very fact-based nature of his decision.
The name-calling this week would simply be distressing if it were not so toxic and part and parcel of a consistent attack on LGBT people. Because all else seems to be failing the right-wing opponents of this precedent-setting decision, the politics of hate has reared its ugly head. The current attack on Judge Walker -- his integrity, his values, and his fitness to do his job -- is an unacceptable way to conduct this debate, no matter whether you're a proponent or opponent of marriage equality.
Steven Petrow is a past president of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association and contributes to The New York Times, 365Gay.com, and Yahoo. This op-edit was originally printed in the Advocate.com.