The biggest controversy arising from Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearings last week was the fact that she said she “would not discriminate on the basis of sexual preference.”
How was that controversial?
According to some Senate Democrats, using the term “sexual preference” is “shameful and offensive.”
Patty Murray, the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, wrote on Twitter: “Judge Barrett using this phrase is shameful and offensive—and it tells us exactly what we need to know about how she views the LGBTQIA+ community.”
Democratic senators Cory Booker and Mazie Hirono, both members of the Judiciary Committee, criticized Barrett for saying “sexual preference” at the hearing. “Let me make clear, ‘sexual preference’ is an offensive and outdated term,” Hirono said to Barrett.
Let me make clear – sexual preference is an offensive and outdated term.
To suggest sexual orientation is a choice? It's not. It's a key part of a person's identity.
— Senator Mazie Hirono (@maziehirono) October 13, 2020
Barrett apologized: “I certainly didn’t mean and would never mean to use a term that would cause any offense to the LGBTQ community.”
“Amy Coney Barrett used an offensive term while talking about LGBTQ rights. Her apology was telling,” read the headline at Vox. But as it turns out, there’s little reason to think the term was offensive before Democrats pounced on Barrett for using it on October 13.
Joe Biden used the term “sexual preference” in May 2020, and the late Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg used it in 2017. Senators Richard Blumenthal and Dick Durbin — both Judiciary Committee members — have used the term in Senate floor speeches over the past decade.
On Thursday afternoon, I caught up with Hirono in the Capitol and asked her about the apparent double standard. The Hawaii senator stands by her condemnation of Barrett for saying “sexual preference,” but won’t call on Biden to apologize for using the same term in May 2020:
National Review: Senator, last week at the hearing you mentioned that you thought it was “offensive and outdated” when Amy Barrett used the [term] “sexual preference.” It turns out that Joe Biden said it in May. Ruth Bader Ginsburg said it in 2017. Some of your colleagues on the Judiciary Committee said it maybe in 2010, 2012. Do you stand by that criticism?
Mazie Hirono: Well, of course.
NR: Do you think Joe Biden should apologize for saying that in May?
Hirono: Well, look, it’s a lesson learned for all of us. But when you’re going on the Supreme Court and you’ve been a judge, as one of my judge friends said, you should know what these words mean.
NR: Should Joe Biden apologize, too, like Amy Coney Barrett did?
Hirono: Joe Biden is not up for the Supreme Court.
NR: He’s up for the presidency. So, he shouldn’t apologize?
Hirono: People will decide.
NR: You don’t want to call on him to apologize?
Hirono: Oh, stop it. The world is in flames.
Of course, the state of the world is the same this week as it was last week when Senators Murray and Hirono smeared Barrett as a bigot for using the term, and the argument that either Barrett or Biden did anything wrong is very weak.
The Huffington Post and The Atlantic have printed “sexual preference” instead of “sexual orientation” in the last six years. A gay-rights advocate used the term in a September 25, 2020, interview with the gay-rights magazine The Advocate. No one condemned or criticized any of the media outlets or Democratic politicians who used the term in the past decade.
In Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, the word “preference” carried no negative connotation when used to refer to sexual orientation on October 12, 2020. On October 13, 2020 — immediately after the media and Senate Democrats pounced on Barrett — Merriam-Webster redefined the word “preference” as “offensive” when used to refer to “sexual orientation.”
Amy Coney Barrett and Joe Biden may not owe anyone an apology. But Senator Hirono and several of her Democratic colleagues do.