Roxane Gay speaks at UB Distinguished Speaker Series

Gay discusses feminism, free speech and politics


Roxane Gay does not consider herself a professional feminist.

“Feminism is not a profession for me,” Gay said. “It is a default feature of my humanity, as it should be for everyone.”

Gay spoke as part of UB’s Distinguished Speaker Series at the Center for the Arts Thursday evening. Gay, a Feminist author and commentator, discussed her feminism, free speech, books and politics. Gay’s laid-back demeanor made her speech feel more like an intimate conversation between old friends rather than a formal academic presentation.

Gay identifies as a black bisexual woman, Haitian-American, a Libra and a “very lapsed Catholic.” She grew up middle class and considers herself a political person.

“I am political because so much of who I am is part of the political discourse,” Gay said.

Students do not know what to make of her, Gay said, because she wears jeans and Converse and has tattoos up and down her arms of abstract designs.

“I’m tall. I’m not petite. I’m the child of immigrants,” Gay said. “Many of my students have never had a black professor before. I can’t help them with that.”

Gay read a short story from her latest book, Difficult Women. The story, entitled “Open Marriage,”is a humorous take on open relationships and whether or not yogurt can expire.

Gay discussed the 2016 presidential election and described the Trump administration as the “age of American disgrace.”

“And that’s my way of being polite,” Gay said.

Gay said Trump has “lied repeatedly, framing every try that doesn’t suit him as fake news.”

Gay believes there can be “no purity” in fighting what Trump represents.

“There is no high road to a man who appointed a white supremacist as his chief strategist,” Gay said. “When they go low, we have to go subterranean.” She was met with thunderous applause.

Gay thinks the challenges minorities are facing from this point forward have to be taken on by everyone.

“[White people] are ashamed of their country and they keep voicing their shame, but I don’t want your shame,” Gay said. “I want you to fight, I want to hear your voices rising clear and strong.”

Gay addressed her recent decision to pull her book from the publishing company Simon and Schuster after the company gave “provocateur” Milo Yiannopoulos, a British media personality a book deal and a platform for “hateful, racist rhetoric.”

After her decision, many people accused Gay of censoring Yiannopoulos and told her she was an “enemy of free speech.”

“Look, I admire the Constitution, but many of its principles are grossly misunderstood, and no amendment is more misunderstood than the First,” Gay said.

As a writer, Gay believes the First Amendment is “sacred” and that people should have the right to express themselves as they choose without fear of government censorship and retaliation.

“You can be criticized, ignored or ridiculed. You can lose your job. You are not owed a book deal from a major publisher,” Gay said. “Freedom of speech does not exist in a vacuum, and freedom of speech is a right but it is also a responsibility, and it is one that many people do not take seriously.”

Maddy Fowler is the assistant news editor and can be reached at