Amy Coney Barrett

If Amy Coney Barrett Has To Apologize for Saying Sexual 'Preference,' Does Joe Biden?

Sens. Mazie Hirono and Cory Booker both criticized the Supreme Court nominee for saying "preference" instead of "orientation."


At Tuesday's confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D–Calif.) asked Barrett if she would roll back protections for LGBT citizens. Barrett responded that she "never discriminated on the basis of sexual preference and would not discriminate on the basis of sexual preference."

For many progressives, this was a bad answer. That's because the term sexual preference is apparently offensive: The preferred term is sexual orientation.

"Barrett's use of 'sexual preference' alarmed many viewers, myself included, for good reason," wrote Slate's Mark Joseph Stern. "The archaic phrase suggests that sexuality is a choice, that gay and bisexual people simply prefer to partner with people of the same sex—a preference that, with enough willpower, can be changed."

Barrett's use of preference didn't just irk Slate magazine writers and the wokest of the woke on Twitter: Two Democratic senators—Hawaii's Mazie Hirono and New Jersey's Cory Booker—brought this up with her during their remarks. Hirono accused Barrett of using "outdated and offensive" terminology. Echoing the progressive parlance, Booker said Barrett had implied that being gay was not an immutable characteristic. The nominee repeatedly apologized, saying that this was not her intention.

Here's a question: If it's always and automatically wrong to use the term sexual preference, should former Vice President Joe Biden apologize for his outdated and offensive terminology? During a roundtable discussion in May, the Democratic Party's presidential candidate promised to "rebuild the backbone of this country, the middle class, but this time bring everybody along regardless of color, sexual preference, their backgrounds." Was Biden implying that he thinks being gay is a choice, or was he just using a term that is obviously, in many contexts, a synonym for sexual orientation, just as Barrett was?

It's true that the American Psychological Association has expressed a preference (ha!) for the term sexual orientation, believing that it does not imply "choice" in the same way that preference does. But of course, the word orientation can also express a choice: One's political orientation is a choice. Similarly, a preference isn't always a choice—an aversion to some foods and a preference for others can be quite the immutable characteristic!

So while it's conceivably the case that the term sexual preference can be deployed in a delegitimizing way, repeatedly pressing Barrett on her choice of words here was a cheap shot. By all means, senators should grill her on her judicial philosophy and how she will apply it to LGBT legal issues, but they don't need to play language police with respect to terms that are plainly synonymous.