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Explained: Why Amy Coney Barrett sparked controversy by using the term ‘sexual preference’

Dictionary publisher Merriam Webster even updated its online definition of the term ‘sexual preference’ after the incident, to indicate its offensive nature.

Written by Rahel Philipose , Edited by Explained Desk | Margao | Updated: October 19, 2020 12:53:39 pm
Amy Coney Barrett, Amy Coney Barrett 'sexual preference, Amy Coney Barrett sexual preference statement, what is sexual preference, US Supreme Court judge, Indian ExpressSupreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett listens during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool via AP)

During her confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill earlier this week, US Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett sparked considerable outrage when she used the widely denounced term ‘sexual preference’ while discussing LGBTQI rights.

Barrett referenced the phrase when questioned about the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Obergfell v. Hodges (2015), which overturned a ban on same-sex marriages across all 50 US states. Hawaii Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono condemned her choice of words, calling the term both “offensive” and “outdated”.

Meanwhile, Barrett’s remarks received widespread backlash on social media, with several members of the LGBTQI community and advocacy groups calling her out for being insensitive.

In fact, noted reference book and dictionary publisher Merriam Webster even updated its online definition of the term ‘sexual preference’ after the incident, to indicate its offensive nature.

What was the controversial statement Amy Coney Barrett made?

On the second day of confirmation hearings for President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court pick Amy Coney Barrett, Senator Dianne Feinstein asked whether the nominee shared her mentor late Justice Antonin Scalia’s views on same-sex marriage. Justice Scalia was known to routinely rule against gay rights, Feinstein pointed out.

Feinstein asked if Barrett, too, would “be a consistent vote to roll back hard-fought freedoms and protections for the LGBT community”. To this, Barrett responded that she had “no agenda”, a line that Scalia himself used during his own confirmation hearing.

“I do want to be clear that I have never discriminated on the basis of sexual preference and would not discriminate on the basis of sexual preference,” she added.

Barret’s Supreme Court nomination has irked LGBTQI groups and advocates across the country as many fear that her ultra-conservative personal views and legal approach could threaten the rights of sexual minorities. During the hearing, Barrett refused to tell senators if she would vote to overturn decisions that provide legal protection to same-sex marriage.

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But, why is the use of the term ‘sexual preference’ controversial?

The term ‘sexual preference’ is often deemed offensive by members and advocates of the LGBTQI community as it implies that sexuality is a choice. The phrase suggests that who a person chooses as a romantic or sexual partner is merely based on personal preference, which has the potential to be changed.

In an article published in 1991, the American Psychological Association (APA) wrote, “The word preference suggests a degree of voluntary choice that is not necessarily reported by lesbians and gay men and that has not been demonstrated in psychological research.”

“The term ‘sexual preference’ is typically used to suggest that being lesbian, gay or bisexual is a choice and therefore can and should be ‘cured’,” prominent US LGBTQI alliance GLAAD notes in a media reference guide. The idea that sexual minorities can be “cured”, implying that their sexuality is an illness, has long been promoted by right-wing Christian groups in the United States.

Today, the term ‘sexual preference’ has widely been replaced by ‘sexual orientation’, as it erases ambiguity and acknowledges that sexuality is a key part of a person’s identity.

What was the response to her statement?

Senator Mazie Hirono later slammed the nominee for using the “offensive and outdated term”. “It is used by anti-LGBTQ activists to suggest that sexual orientation is a choice. It is not,” the senator said.

She went on to say that if Barrett really believed that “sexual orientation is merely a preference”, then the LGBTQ community should be “rightly concerned” about whether the judge will uphold their constitutional right to marry if she were to be confirmed.

Apologising for her comments, Barrett said that she didn’t mean to “cause any offence in the LGBTQ community”. “So if I did, I greatly apologise for that,” she said. “I simply meant to be referring to Obergefell’s holding with regard to same-sex marriage.”

Barrett’s remarks also sparked widespread backlash on social media. Sharing a video of the incident on Twitter, the Washington DC-based National Women’s Law Centre wrote, “It’s not a ‘preference’, Judge Barrett.”

GLAAD, too, condemned her comments. “The correct term is sexual orientation. ‘Sexual preference’ is a term often used by anti-LGBTQ activists to imply that sexual orientation is a choice,” the organisation tweeted.

Soon after, Merriam Webster updated its online definition of the term ‘sexual preference’ to indicate its offensive nature.

“The term sexual preference as used to refer to sexual orientation is widely considered offensive in its implied suggestion that a person can choose who they are sexually or romantically attracted to,” the updated entry now reads. The dictionary publisher has since confirmed that the entry was, in fact, updated due to Barrett’s controversial comments at her Supreme Court confirmation hearing.

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