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Merriam-Webster dictionary declares ‘sexual preference’ offensive amid Amy Coney Barrett row

Reiss Smith October 14, 2020
Amy Coney Barrett looks on during her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing

Amy Coney Barrett looks on during her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing. (Getty)

After Amy Coney Barrett was criticised for using the outdated term “sexual preference”, the Merriam-Webster dictionary has declared it offensive.

The Supreme Court nominee was forced to apologise after being accused of using a homophobic dog whistle during a Senate hearing on Tuesday (October 13).

Barrett claimed she “had never… and would never discriminate on the basis of sexual preference”. The claim itself was widely disputed, but the judge’s wording also came under heavy criticism from LGBT+ groups and politicians.

As the row continued, the Meriam-Webster dictionary updated its definition for the word “preference”.

Its online dictionary now includes the following addendum: “The term 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.”

Amy Coney Barrett apologises for using ‘sexual preference’.

Coney Barrett was widely rebuked for using the phrase “sexual preference”, including by senator Mazie Hirono, who called it “offensive and outdated.”

“It’s used by anti-LGBTQ activists to suggest that sexual orientation is a choice. It is not,” Hirono said.

“Sexual orientation is a key part of a person’s identity. That sexual orientation is both a normal expression of human sexuality and immutable was a key part of the majority’s opinion in Obergefell.”

Obergefell v Hodges is the 2015 Supreme Court decision that made same-sex marriage the law of the land – the same one attacked by two conservative Supreme Court justices, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, shortly before Barrett’s hearings began, and that LGBT+ groups warn could be undone if her nomination is approved.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Barrett was grilled over the issue, and over her public pledge to decide cases in the mould of the late justice Antonin Scalia  – who dissented on Obergefell.

Specifically, Barrett was asked to say whether she agreed with Scalia’s assessment that “the US constitution does not afford gay people the fundamental right to marry”.

She refused to do so, instead saying: “If I were confirmed, you would be getting justice Barrett, not justice Scalia. I don’t think that anybody should assume that just because justice Scalia would decide a decision a certain way, that I would too – but I’m not going to express a view on whether I agree or disagree with justice Scalia [on same-sex marriage].”

Later Barrett said that her refusal to answer directly was “certainly not indicating disagreement with [Obergefell]”.

She also apologised for her use of “sexual preference”, adding: “I certainly didn’t mean and would never mean to use a term that would cause any offense in the LGBTQ community.”

More: Amy Coney Barrett, obergefell

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