The Term ‘Sexual Preference’ Is Outdated, Offensive, and Incorrect

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During Tuesday's confirmation hearing at the Senate Judiciary Committee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, President Trump's latest nominee to the Supreme Court, utilized the term "sexual preference" in discussions surrounding LGTBQ+ discrimination. Specifically, she stated that she "would not discriminate on basis of sexual preference” if confirmed.

While Barrett, 47, is not alone in deploying this phrase to describe different types of attraction (physical, romantic, or emotional), it is an antiquated term; in fact, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) has been recommending its eradication from our vocabularies for at least 20 years.

Experts In This Article
  • Barbara Simon, Barbara Simon is the head of news and campaigns at GLAAD.

"Sexual preference" is not just old-school lingo, either. "It's offensive because it's used by anti-LGBTQ+ activists to suggest that being gay, lesbian, or bisexual is voluntary or a choice and therefore 'curable,' like through debunked conversion therapy, which actively harms LGBTQ+ people and should be banned everywhere," says Barbara Simon, head of news and campaigns at GLAAD. According to research, more than 700,000 people in the LGTBQ+ have been subjected to this form of abuse. It is not condoned by any major medical organization, and no studies have shown it to be effective in changing sexual orientation.

"It's offensive because it's used by anti-LGBTQ+ activists to suggest that being gay, lesbian, or bisexual is voluntary or a choice and therefore 'curable.'"—Barbara Simon, head of news and campaigns at GLAAD

Even if the semantics seem small, they're not. Using more inclusive definitions and words can serve as a means to make LGBTQ+ folks feel comfortable, seen, and accepted—using the wrong language actively causes harm. Use of the term "sexual preference" is a microaggression that gaslights the lived reality of LGBTQ+ folks while endangering their physical and mental wellbeing. The accepted phrase to use instead, according to GLAAD, is "sexual orientation" or simply "orientation."

If you are a member of the LGBTQ+ community and want to correct someone who's used this term, Simon recommends the following template: "''Sexual preference' is not a thing. What I think you mean is 'sexual orientation,' and it's a scientifically accurate term for a person's enduring physical, romantic, and emotional attraction to members of the same-sex, or if you are straight, to members of the opposite sex (being straight is a sexual orientation too!). Sexual 'preference' is an inaccurate, outdated, offensive term. Being gay is simply how I'm oriented and who I happily am.'"

Simon also points out that Barrett does indeed have a personal history of discrimination based on sexual orientation—as lawyer and Well+Good contributor Jill Filipovic tweeted Tuesday, and as evidenced by Barrett's views on marriage for same-sex couples and gender identity. While this doesn't necessarily mean she would rule according to her personal values as a Supreme Court justice, this history—and the judge's use of a discriminatory term while on the most important public stage of her life—does not exactly paint her as an LGBTQ+ ally that, if appointed, will allow the LGBTQ+ community to rest easy in the knowledge that their rights will continue to be expanded or protected.

After all, Barrett is a lawyer and a judge and as such, her words are not accidentally spoken but rather carefully chosen. It's important to hear them as they are intended to be heard.

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