Gay judge for Prop 8 trial: open secret, non-issue

The biggest open secret in the same-sex marriage trial underway in San Francisco has been the general knowledge that presiding Judge Vaughn Walker is himself gay. It became less secret and more open today, thanks to a piece in the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle by columnists Phil Matier and Andrew Ross.

Many gay politicians in San Francisco and lawyers who have had dealings with Walker say the 65-year-old jurist, appointed to the bench by President George H.W. Bush in 1989, has never taken pains to disguise – or advertise – his orientation.

They also don’t believe it will influence how he rules on the case he’s now hearing – whether Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot measure approved by state voters to ban same-sex marriage, unconstitutionally discriminates against gays and lesbians.

Gay rights supporters, as well as many on the other side of this case, say they would not expect the sexual orientation of the unpredictable jurist to become an issue. Walker was, in fact, loudly condemned by the LGBT community for representing the U.S. Olympic Committee in their successful suit to keep the San Francisco Gay Games from using the ‘Olympics’ name when he was a private attorney.

“There is nothing about Walker as a judge to indicate that his sexual orientation, other than being an interesting factor, will in any way bias his view,” said Kate Kendell, head of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which is supporting the lawsuit to overturn Prop. 8.

Matier and Ross quoted a federal judge friend of Walker who said Walker had some concern that people might conclude he wants to conceal his sexuality, but that it is part of his private life and irrelevant to any decision-making. The friend, who asked not to be identified “because of the sensitive nature of the Prop. 8 trial” further commented,

As evidence, she cites the judge’s conservative – albeit libertarian – reputation, and says, “There wasn’t anyone who thought (overturning Prop.8) was a cakewalk given his sexual orientation.”

State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, who has sponsored two bills to authorize same-sex marriage that were vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said that as far as he’s concerned, Walker’s background is a nonissue. “It seems curious to me,” he said, that when the state Supreme Court heard a challenge to Prop. 8, the justices’ sexual orientation “was never discussed.”

Leno added, “I have great respect for Judge Walker, professionally and personally.”

Matier and Ross quoted a federal judge friend of Walker who said Walker had some concern that people might conclude he wants to conceal his sexuality, but that it is part of his private life and irrelevant to any decision-making. The friend, who asked not to be identified “because of the sensitive nature of the Prop. 8 trial” further commented,

Is it newsworthy?” he said of Walker’s orientation, and laughed. “Yes.”He said it was hard to ignore the irony that “in the beginning, when (Walker) sought to be a judge, a major obstacle he had to overcome was the perception that he was anti-gay.”

In short, the friend said, Walker’s background is relevant in the same way people would want to know that a judge hearing a discrimination case involving Latinos was Latino or a Jewish judge was ruling in a case involving the Anti-Defamation League.

There has been some talk around town that if the judge rules Prop. 8 unconstitutional and the  case goes as expected to the Supreme Court, Prop. 8 supporters will indeed raise the issue of Walker’s sexual orientation; and this was noted by the columnists.

Not so, said Andy Pugno, general counsel for the group that sponsored the Prop. 8 campaign.”We are not going to say anything about that,” Pugno said.

He was quick to assert, however, that Prop. 8 backers haven’t gotten a fair shake from Walker in court. He cited both the judge’s order for the campaign to turn over thousands of pages of internal memos to the other side and Walker’s decision to allow the trial to be broadcast – both of which were overturned by higher courts.

“In many ways, the sponsors of Prop. 8 have been put at significant disadvantage throughout the case,” Pugno said. “Regardless of the reason for it.”

Who’s getting the breaks and advantages in the case, now being considered by the judge, is a matter of who’s doing the analysis.

Judge being gay a nonissue during Prop. 8 trial.

Going to hell, or going to dance — hate group meets celebration

A small but extraordinarily vitriolic hate group out of Topeka, KS visited the San Francisco Bay Area this past week, picketing a variety of targets — anything Jewish, homosexual or supportive of same seems to do. It is, in fact, hard to find many people these folks don’t hate. You are welcome to check out their website — Westboro Baptist Church — it’s just not recommended after eating.They are headed to Dallas next.

Most people simply ignored them. But groups at several local high schools and at Stanford University took the occasion of being targeted for a little creative anti-hate-group celebrating, and some of these events are chronicled on the Not In Our Town site:

Hillel at Stanford University, one of the institutions targeted Jan. 29 by Westboro, invited the entire Stanford community to stand together Friday morning “for a peaceful gathering in celebration of our diversity and our unity,” according to the invitation they emailed to students and campus groups.

“We chose to use the incident as an opportunity to align the campus around shared values and issue a call to action,” said Adina Danzig Epelman, executive director of Hillel at Stanford. Students were instructed not to engage the Phelps family in any way, and to bring signs with positive rather than negative messages.

About 1000 students  representing dozens of campus organizations, or simply themselves, along with a number of faculty and staff, showed up at 8am for 45 minutes of musical celebration, including an unexpected bagpipe player who launched into “Amazing Grace” on the front steps of the Hillel building. It was, Epelman said, “a very broad gathering, representing the diversity of our campus.”

In a message of support earlier in the week, the Hindu and Muslim co-founders of Stanford F.A.I.T.H. wrote: “If we did not stand alongside Jews, gays and lesbians, or any other group that may be maligned this Friday, we would not be the Hindus and Muslims we strive to be.”

At San Francisco’s Lowell High School, another target, the handful of picketers were met by an exuberant horde of teenagers who seemed to agree with one sign proclaiming “We’re not going to hell, we’re going to dance.” My personal favorite sign read “Jesus had two Dads;” had he been around I suspect Jesus would have been dancing.

The only gloom, in fact, was on the faces of the young picketers. They looked more wistful than hateful. It’s easy to believe they would rather be dancing too.

Right time for gay rights?

President Obama, having repeated his promise to end “don’t ask, don”t tell” on Saturday, got an additional nudge from the National Equality March on Sunday. Tens of thousands of gay rights supporters from across the country poured through the streets of the nation’s capital to demand equal rights for LGBT citizens. They have their work cut out for them. With a few small, scattered gains having been made, there are battlegrounds shaping up everywhere from Maine to California over the issues highlighted by the events of this past weekend.

My friend Joe, who celebrated 35 years with his partner last summer, asked why I haven’t written about gay rights. Boomers and Beyonders, he says, have a unique perspective. “We have won a few battles that won’t have to be fought again, but there’s a long road ahead and the netroots now taking the lead need to have strong support from the veterans.”

So here goes.

While reiterating his promise to end “don’t ask, don’t tell,” Obama  gave no timetable for doing so. It’s time. Given everything else on his plate, those of us who support gay rights may be willing to cut the president a little slack, but this small step toward clearing some of the large injustices gays and lesbians have lived with since approximately forever is one Obama should be taking soon. 2010 sounds about right.

Other gay rights battlegrounds are active in Maine, where a ballot measure would repeal marriage rights for gays and lesbians, in Washington where a referendum must pass if full domestic partnership benefits are retained, and elsewhere. Meanwhile, according to Change.org, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops “is planning a major statement on marriage in November, preparing to issue new language about how the church views same-sex marriage. Unfortunately, the new language is more of the same… hateful, tired and representative of a theology that views people who are LGBT as less than.”

Compared to the record of togetherness set by Joe and Robert, my marital history is pretty lousy. (Up until this, my final marriage, that is, and its extraordinarily happy 17 years.) So it is hard to see my marital state being threatened by theirs being legitimized. Joe and I were also part of an AIDS support group during the 1990s, and witnessed tragic injustices suffered by dying young men whose hospital doors were barred to those who loved them best. A lot more needs changing than just “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Michigan) was quoted by Elizabeth Williamson and Neil King in Monday’s Wall Street Journal as saying it was “now possible ‘to get a buy-in from the military’ to end a policy opposed by gays and many liberals since it was passed by Congress in 1993.” The monumental pile of global problems to be solved may keep Obama from seizing this good opportunity; gay rights supporters could keep that door open until he does act.

Global issues aside, one home front fact remains: LGBT Americans have been unjustly treated in innumerable ways, for innumerable years.

Getting rid of “don’t ask, don’t tell” seems a very good way to start putting things right.