As inevitable as the sun rising in the morning, the issue of Judge Vaughn Walker’s sexual orientation is again front-and-center after the ruling on Proposition 8 in California.

Sitting in my car listening to NPR on Wednesday, I heard correspondent Karen Grigsby Bates describe Walker as being openly gay and it not being a big issue.

He is generally considered to be very thoughtful, very thorough. And he’s gay. He’s gay and out. And it doesn’t seem to be an issue for anybody, including the supporters of Proposition 8, because when it was announced that Judge Walker was the judge who’d been assigned this case, they did not ask that he be recused from it.

That he was gay and out was news to me, since I’m not sure I’ve seen any reports where Walker has talked publicly about being openly gay, although it does appear to be common knowledge in San Francisco legal and media circles.

Quickly, the issue of Walker’s sexual orientation became big news among Prop 8 supporters and the conservative press. It’s mentioned as evidence of bias in a story in the Washington Times, in commentary on Fox News’ website, prominently on the Drudge Report, in a blog post at the National Review, and in press releases by the National Organization for Marriage. Andrew Sullivan looked at the attempt to smear Walker and said:

Did it matter that Thurgood Marshall was black? Should he have recused himself from civil rights decisions that affected African-Americans?

All of this brings us back to a more basic question. Is Walker “openly gay” if he’s never talked about it openly? Are you openly gay if you have a same-sex partner and everyone knows you are gay, but you haven’t issued a press statement or responded to questions about it?  What exactly constitutes “openly gay”?

I’m not sure Grigsby Bates was wrong in describing Walker as “gay and out” although it was still odd to hear given the attention the issue has gotten.  I assume a public figure is “out” when they’ve actually said it in public, but maybe that’s a very 1990’s way of looking at things and not terribly post-gay.  For someone of Walker’s age and stature, I’d be curious to know whether he considers himself “gay and open” as opposed to what someone who has never lived in the closet would say about being “gay and open.”