It was a brief moment of levity for me in the otherwise stressful confirmation hearings when President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett used the term “sexual preference” in response to a question from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) about legal protections for “the LGBT community.”
“Sexual preference” is one of those outdated terms that people said in what my mother calls polite company. Like when you weren’t sure if you were allowed to just say “gay.” Frankly, it makes me roll my eyes. I would be straight, but I prefer not to be.
So, when two senators proceeded to chastise Barrett and the Internet exploded over her use of the term, I was bewildered. Surely, the nominee might oppose same-sex marriage and civil protections for LGBTQ people. But is “sexual preference” the smoking gun of thinly veiled homophobia?
Never mind that neither the terms sexual “preference” nor “orientation” capture gender identity and therefore erase the “T” in “LGBTQ,” Barrett’s comments and the reactions to it highlight the persistently contentious nature of sexual identity politics. Even slight deviation from the “born this way” narrative of innate, unchangeable sexual orientation, such as Barrett’s passe “preference,” can spark outrage and character assassination from within the LGBTQ community.
The Obergefell decision that legalized same-sex marriage expectedly loomed large in the confirmation hearings. “Only in more recent years have psychiatrists and others recognized that sexual orientation is both a normal expression of human sexuality and immutable,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who has since retired, wrote in the landmark 2015 case. But Kennedy actually mischaracterized the American Psychological Association’s amicus brief by suggesting that scientists have closed the case on sexual orientation.
What professional psychologists actually told the court is that sexuality is resistant to coercive change efforts. In other words, attempts to change an individual’s sexual orientation, such as so-called conversion therapy, are ineffective, unsafe and wrong. Changes in sexual orientation and sexual identity, on the other hand, are a well-documented and completely normal part of the human experience. Psychologists and other social scientists know that sexual orientation does in fact change for some people and that sexual identities are far more complex than straight versus not. And yet to say so publicly, particularly in the context of civil rights, is often considered retrograde or offensive.
Today, LGBTQ politics and endorsing a “born this way” narrative of sexuality seem inextricable. But widespread belief in the innateness of sexual orientation is relatively recent, and LGBTQ rights have not always been tied to biology.
The intermingling of LGBTQ rights activists and scientists is actually a nuanced history that dates back at least to 19th century advocacy against anti-sodomy laws that criminalized homosexuality in Europe. Political scientists and sociologists have noted that U.S. LGBTQ rights activists’ deployment of biological arguments about the innateness and immutability of sexual orientation actually intensified in the second half of the 20th century, particularly in efforts to ban “conversion therapy.”
My research documents how the relationship between one’s beliefs about the nature of sexual orientation and how one views sexual minorities is far more complicated than popular “born this way” discourse would lead us to believe.
Predictably, we have found beliefs about sexual orientation’s naturalness to be prevalent. In other words, lots of people we survey believe that sexual orientation is both innate and unchangeable. Unexpectedly, we have not found these beliefs to be a particularly useful predictor of the extent to which someone is homophobic. Consistently, we have observed that straight people’s beliefs about gay people being fundamentally similar to one another (and very different from straight people) are more reliable predictors of sexual prejudice. Likewise, homophobia appears more prevalent among those who believe that knowing a person’s sexual orientation tells you a lot about who someone really is. And telling people that science proves being gay is inborn also does not appear to make them less homophobic.
We even looked at how these beliefs play out in elections. In a study published earlier this month, we explored how beliefs about sexual orientation might predict voting in the 2016 presidential election. “Born this way” beliefs told us nothing about how our sample of young people intended to vote. Trump supporters and Clinton supporters both thought gay people are born that way. Instead, once again, other beliefs about sexuality, including the belief that people are either completely gay or completely straight, were much more revealing about respondents’ political affiliation and intended voting behavior. The more rigid, discrete and inflexible one viewed sexualities, the more likely people were to support then-candidate Donald Trump.
I do not know if Barrett believes I was born gay. I do know that she is consistently antiabortion, does not believe that racial epithets necessarily make a workplace hostile and has an ambivalent relationship to LGBTQ rights at best. She claimed not to discriminate against LGBTQ people in Tuesday’s hearing, but she knows the key legal issue is what precisely constitutes discrimination under the law. What Barrett views as a business’s right to religious exemption may be what I call discrimination, but it will be Barrett’s opinion that counts.
I am far more worried about what Barrett believes about a range of other social issues than I am about whether she refers to my sexuality as a “preference.” And the evidence suggests that indignation over her use of the outdated term may be misplaced.