Was Sen. Hirono right to call Judge Barrett’s use of 'sexual preference' offensive?
- Senator Maize Hirono (D-HI), is a Japanese-American immigrant who’s served Hawai’i as Senator since 2013. Before that, Hirono was a Representative of Hawai’i from 2007-2013.
- Amy Coney Barrett is a lawyer and judge from South Bend, Indiana, who has served in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. She was nominated by President Trump to fill Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s SCOTUS seat on Saturday, September 26, 2020.
- Judge Barrett is a professor at Notre Dame, has clerked for the now deceased conservative, originalist SCOTUS judge, Antonin Scalia, which she says has shaped her judicial philosophy, including in originalism, the belief that “judges should attempt to interpret the words of the Constitution as the authors intended when they were written.”
- Judge Barret answered questions from Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Tuesday, October 13 (the second day of Senate Judicial hearrings), and used the phrase “sexual preference” when referring to the SCOTUS ruling on same-sex marriage. Sen. Mazie Hirono later accused Judge Barrett of using “outdated” and “offensive” terms against the LBGTQ+ community.
- By Wednesday, October 14, Merriam-Webster had changed it’s definition of “preference” from being synonymous with “orientation” to being re-defined as “offensive” when used as “sexual preference.”
- Many publications, LGBTQ+ content creators, high-level Obama Administration members, such as Obama’s Defense Secretary and currently his former VP and presidential hopeful, Joe Biden, have used the term “sexual preference” without scorn.
Senator Mazie Hirono was absolutely right to criticize Judge Amy Coney Barrett's callous words because they mischaracterize the people they are describing. 'Sexual preference' is an outdated term implying that one's sexual orientation is a choice. One wonders when Judge Barrett herself chose to prefer heterosexuality.
Using terms like 'sexual preference' is a form of dog-whistling, and Senator Hirono was justified in calling Judge Barrett out on it. Barrett is highly skilled at using very particular language to express herself in high-pressure situations, so this turn of phrase was no accident. For her to use such a term shows that she is either out-of-touch with current terminology or is a sloppy public speaker, neither of which are acceptable for a potential Supreme Court justice. Confirmation hearings are intended to vet candidates to ensure that they are 'qualified and free from serious conflicts of interest.' If found to be signaling to a homophobic sector, then a candidate is undoubtedly deserving of criticism.
Additionally, denouncing Judge Barrett's words was right because words matter. All across the nation, businesses, classrooms, and social circles are updating their language and eliminating old-fashioned terms like 'sexual preference' because they carry so much baggage. Surely, we can expect a potential Supreme Court justice to follow suit.
As someone who will be making far-reaching decisions based on the subtle meaning of words, Judge Barrett should have been more precise in her speech--and not utilized outdated, offensive terminology. Words matter and Senator Hirono was right to point it out.
It was not correct for Senator Hirono to call Judge Barrett's use of the term 'sexual preference' offensive. The senator was out-of-line, and her comments to correct a sitting federal judge were what was offensive.
According to Wikipedia, 'the term 'sexual preference' has a similar meaning to 'sexual orientation,' and the two terms are often used interchangeably…'
Most notably, however, even current Democratic Presidential nominee, Joe Biden, used the term 'sexual preference,' as recently as this May, when stating his intentions to 'rebuild the backbone of this country, the middle class, but this time bring everybody along, regardless of color, sexual preference, their backgrounds.' And no one corrected him.
All words serve many uses. If one looks at any word close enough, it's easy to find something offensive about it. For example, dog, slave, Neanderthal, and prince--they could all be considered insulting. It's about the attitude and the meaning the speaker holds when they say a word or phrase that makes a difference. Judge Barrett certainly did not use the term disparagingly when stating, '...I have never discriminated on the basis of sexual preference and would not discriminate on the basis of sexual preference.'
Senator Hirono's criticism of Judge Barrett's statement is as jarring as her inquiry into whether the candidate had ever sexually assaulted anyone. Clearly, Hirono's grandstanding has earned media attention for herself; however, it has also cast her in an unfavorable light. Trying to embarrass an obviously bright, experienced, and highly-regarded sitting federal judge is more worthy of criticism than that candidate's mention of a commonly-used phrase while denouncing discrimination.