CNN  — 

Early on in Tuesday’s confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill, Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett used a term that alarmed many LGBTQ+ people and advocates:

Sexual preference.

Barrett referenced the term when asked about the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which granted the right to same-sex marriage – a choice of words that Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono condemned in a lengthy statement.

“Even though you didn’t give a direct answer I think your response did speak volumes,” Hirono said. “Not once, but twice, you used the term sexual preference to describe those in the LGBTQ community. And let me make clear, sexual preference is an offensive and outdated term.”

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

She added that if Barrett believed “that sexual orientation is merely a preference,” then the LGBTQ community should be “rightly concerned” whether the judge would uphold their constitutional right to marry.

Barrett later apologized for causing offense.

“I certainly didn’t mean, and would never mean, to use a term that would cause any offense in the LGBTQ community,” she said. “So if I did, I greatly apologize for that.”

Here’s why many people found Barrett’s use of the term concerning.

It suggests sexual orientation is a choice

Many LGBTQ people take issue with the term sexual preference because it implies that who a person is romantically and sexually attracted to is merely a matter of personal choice – an idea that both advocacy organizations and health professionals have long rejected.

“The word preference suggests a degree of voluntary choice that is not necessarily reported by lesbians and gay men and that has not been demonstrated in psychological research,” the American Psychological Association (APA) noted in a journal article published in 1991.

Instead, advocacy groups recommend that people use the term sexual orientation or simply, orientation.

“The term ‘sexual preference’ is typically used to suggest that being lesbian, gay or bisexual is a choice and therefore can and should be ‘cured,’” GLAAD, which lobbies for greater understanding and inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in media, notes in its media reference guide.

“Sexual orientation is the accurate description of an individual’s enduring physical, romantic and/or emotional attraction to members of the same and/or opposite sex and is inclusive of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, as well as straight men and women.”

It’s true that sexual preference and sexual orientation have often been used interchangeably by some in the past.

But language is constantly evolving and adapting to reflect the experiences and ideas of those it describes. Terms that might have seemed acceptable even a few years ago may not be viewed as such today.

For example, as recently as last month, Merriam-Webster included the term sexual preference under its definition of the word “preference” to refer to sexual orientation. The dictionary has since updated its entry to reflect the way the term is now interpreted.

“The term sexual 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,” Merriam-Webster says.

It’s used to validate harmful practices

Suggesting that sexuality is a preference can also imply that it has the potential to be changed or “cured,” an idea often promoted by right-wing Christian groups.

That’s the thinking behind harmful practices like conversion therapy, which has been widely debunked by major medical organizations and outlawed by many state and local legislatures.

Most studies have shown that attempting to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity through therapy doesn’t work, and can actually put them at a greater risk of depression, anxiety or suicide.

“… Such efforts have serious potential to harm young people because they present the view that the sexual orientation of lesbian, gay and bisexual youth is a mental illness or disorder,” the APA and 12 other organizations wrote in a 2008 publication, “and they often frame the inability to change one’s sexual orientation as a personal and moral failure.”