What started off as a rather lackluster interrogation during the new Supreme Court Justice Senate Hearing ended with a bombshell that prompted an age-old debate: sexual preference vs sexual orientation. The new Trump pick for the Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett was asked a series of question regarding Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court ruling that said same-sex marriage is a constitutionally protected right. Through those questions, she ultimately refused to answer whether she agreed with that ruling.
“I have no agenda, and I do want to be clear that I have never discriminated on the basis of sexual preference and would not ever discriminate on the basis of sexual preference,” Barrett said in response to questioning about Obergefell on Tuesday.
That one quote sparked a national outcry from LGBTQ+ advocates and allies to set the record “straight” (so to speak). Mind you, this is coming just two days after #NationalComingOutDay, so people were particularly upset — and rightfully so! The phrase “sexual preference” is not the same as “sexual orientation,” especially in this particular context. To understand the nuances, let’s define each term.
According to Psychology Today, sexual orientation describes patterns of sexual, romantic, and emotional attraction — and one’s sense of identity based on those attractions. Some scientists categorize sexual orientation as being attracted to men or masculinity (androphilic), women or feminity (gynephilic), bisexual, asexual, or something else.
According to Wikipedia, sexual preference largely overlaps with sexual orientation, but is generally distinguished in psychological research. A person who identifies as bisexual, for example, may sexually prefer one sex over the other. Sexual preference may also suggest a degree of voluntary choice, whereas the scientific consensus is that sexual orientation is not a choice.
The words “orientation” and “preference” are similar, but it’s the context in how they’re used that makes a difference. To illustrate this, try googling “sexual orientation” and then try googling “psychology+sexual preference”. You’ll notice that virtually all of the results for sexual preference show up as sexual orientation. Why is that? It’s because scientists, psychologists, and people who study sexuality collectively agree to use the term “sexual orientation.” The term “sexual preference” is not used here because it implies a choice. Members of the LGBTQ+ community may see “preference” as offensive, considering our sexual orientation (patterns of sexual, romantic, and emotional attraction) is not a distinguishable choice. We can choose who we love (the person/the preference), but we cannot consciously choose how we choose to love (the sexuality/the orientation). Therefore, when using the term “preference,” we’re actually referring to something else.
To be clear, our sexual orientation is not a choice. These are predetermined through genetics, environmental factors, or a combination of both. As of now, there is no concrete evidence of a “gay gene” or something in our DNA that determines our sexuality. People may not agree with the popularized phrase “born this way,” thanks to Lady Gaga’s smash hit. To say we are born this way would mean that there IS a “gay gene.” While science has yet to prove or disprove that, the true meaning of that phrase serves to humanize everyone, regardless of their sexuality. That’s part of why the “born this way” phrase has been so impactful and important in the conversation around sexual orientation.
Now back to the beginning: why is preference not the right word in this context? Amy Coney Barrett said she wouldn’t discriminate against someone’s sexual preference. What that says is that she wouldn’t judge a man if he loved his male business partner or his longtime male best friend. The man’s preference is between the business partner or best friend. That is a very different conversation than discriminating against someone’s sexual orientation. Amy Coney Barrett did not say that she would not discriminate against a woman who loved a man or who loved another woman. That would revolved around someone’s orientation. Whether intentional or not, her words were seen as a dog-whistle, especially by conservatives and the Alt-Right. That’s where we are in this debate. It’s not about sexual identity per se, but it’s about the very foundation in which our country was founded: no matter who we are or what our sexual orientation is, will we all be treated equally under the law?
Since Barrett’s comments, I saw that many openly gay men were mixed on this debate. Some were trying to say that it doesn’t matter if we use “preference” or “orientation.” Others elaborated and said gay men choose to come out and we choose our sexual identities. While they are entitled to their opinion, I would push back and say that this way of thinking is a product of our heteronormative society and how we are expected to live. Below are questions and my answers to this heteronormative way of thinking:
- If having same sex relations were a choice, then would it be bad?
A: Our country has placed a moral value on sex, which was very evident in the mid-twentieth century. People who identified as gay, lesbian, or trans were often closeted because our society viewed homosexuality as “bad.” It wasn’t until the Stonewall Riots and sexual revolution that followed that showed that queer sex is not “bad”. This question of morals of around sex should not even exist in the first place. Sex is not inherently good or bad! Now if it was terms of sexual pleasure though, that’s an entirely different conversation…
- If we say, “It’s not a choice, so you must give us rights,” then it feels like we’re really saying, “If it were a choice, then we don’t need any rights.”
A: That’s not what we are saying. Our argument is that our sexual orientation is not a choice, and our human dignity is not up for debate. As all Americans are seen as equal under the law, regardless of our sexual orientation, we are entitled to those same rights.
- I don’t care if you use sexual orientation. That’s fine. I don’t care if you use sexual preference. That’s fine, too. It is not a behavior that should be discriminated against.
A: Sex and same-sex marriage are not the same thing. Same-sex couples getting married is not a behavior. All LGBTQ+ couples are entitled to marriage under the law. Our sexualities are evolving and complex. Under the law, regardless of where we fall under the spectrum, all sexualities are to be protected. Nobody is choosing to one day to be straight, the next day be gay, and the next day be trans. However, this may be someone’s journey through sexual orientation by their own self-discovery. This evolution is common, and it must be respected. Now to the other part: sex. Sex is scrutinized under the law in a very different way. The behavior of having sex is treated very differently. Laws regarding sex work are mostly sex-negative. Laws regarding HIV are also very sex-negative. Laws regarding rape and incest could even be stronger to be more inclusive and give victims a greater say in the court of law. Across the board, our laws surrounding sex are not up to date with our ever-changing culture. That’s part of why these conversations are hard to have when our judicial system is so far behind the times.
- Aren’t we boxing ourselves in rhetorically with the values of a heteronormative society?
A: By taking the position of “use the word orientation not preference,” it’s drawing a hard line in the sand. There’s no ambiguity to how we feel about being treated with dignity. The other side that says “I don’t care if you use preference or orientation” is more aligned with our heteronormative peers because they’ve never had to experience orientation or preference in their own sexuality. Remember, that’s what Amy Coney Barrett failed to understand when using the word “preference.” Heteronormativity does not embrace multiple sexualities or sexual fluidity. It’s stuck in the gender binary, and as a result, it produces more gender stereotypes. So to say “it can be preference or orientation” plays right into heteronormative society. To them, preference and orientation have always been rigid. Straight men have always been heterosexual (orientation) and must sleep with women. Straight men having sex with women is NOT a preference because that’s exactly what heterosexuality is! Hence, there’s conflation between the two terms “orientation” & “preference.” When straight people say “sleeping with the same sex is a preference,” that comes from their heteronormative view that having sex outside the expected heterosexual norm is a choice. They think we must be CHOOSING to have sex outside the heterosexual norm because they do NOT understand an orientation other than their own. That’s why we must be cognizant of how we use orientation vs preference.
- If one day scientists discover there is no “gay gene” and we are in fact are choosing homosexuality, would that change things? Would it become okay to use a newly developed conversion therapy if it worked?
A: Homosexuality can also come about through environmental factors. It can be a “gene,” it can be environmental, or it can be a combination of both. If there was no gay gene, then certainly it must be environmental. Before the 1970’s, homosexuality was believed to be a mental disorder. Have you seen the Netflix show Ratched? Set in the 1940’s, the show gives an eerily accurate portrayal of how doctors treated patients “suffering from homosexuality.” Doctors would literally TORTURE gay men and women because they thought homosexuality was morally wrong and “incorrect” (again, because it fell outside of heteronormativity). The show explores lesbianism and how the physical trauma inflicted on patients was suppose to “cure” them of their sexual desires (the ones outside the heterosexual norm). Since then, our scientific understanding of the LGBTQ+ community has evolved, even though conversion therapy still exists in areas around the country. If findings showed that there were no gay genes, our capitalist society would instill fear in people and advocate for conversion therapy. This would not come from a place of moral repugnance as much as it would from a profit-driven motive. Think about the millions of people who could become possible targets for conversion therapy. Doctors would gladly start to create “conversion therapy” programs in order to make money off of that misguided “choice.” Our society would promote the idea of “sexuality as a choice” in order to capitalize on these “conversions.” I don’t think this day would ever come, but I also once thought Trump would never become President.
At the end of the day, nobody is making the conscious choice to be gay. They may be making a choice about how they self-identify, but that’s determined through one’s own journey through sexual exploration and self-discovery. People’s sexual orientations are whatever they say/feel they are. Regardless of what that orientation is, we must ALL be treated equally under the law. Period.