Writer Roxane Gay Alleges "Threats of Censorship" at SLU, Takes on Abortion


Roxane Gay speaking at a different event in April 2014. - PHOTO COURTESY OF FLICKR/KELLYWRITERSHOUSE
  • Photo courtesy of Flickr/Kellywritershouse
  • Roxane Gay speaking at a different event in April 2014.
Yesterday evening, the writer and activist Roxane Gay spoke at Saint Louis University. 

But Gay didn't stick to her prepared remarks. Instead, catalyzed by what she describes as "vague threats of censorship" earlier in the day, she wrote something new in her car and read that instead.

Her new talk, given in the auditorium of SLU's John Cook School of Business, detailed an email she'd received from her agent, relaying a message from an assistant vice president.

Gay publicly questioned the university's meddling. And then she did exactly what the vice president had asked that she not to do.

She talked about abortion — and defended women's right to choose it.

As a feminist and a bisexual, Gay might seem like an unusual choice for the Jesuit university. In November, SLU even moved a talk off campus being given by a former assistant professor — since the professor is also chair of the board of trustees for Planned Parenthood, the student organizers bowed to pressure from the university and agreed to move the event to a nearby hotel.

But, as Gay detailed in her remarks, she was raised Catholic. "Ours was a deeply faithful household," she said. "Though I am rather lapsed, I am the better for it." 

Gay later published her SLU speech (apparently in its entirety) on Tumblr. In it, she explained,

This morning, as I was finishing up packing my suitcase, I received an email from my speaking agent, saying he had gotten a “reminder,” from the student representative of the Free to Be organization that invited me to the St. Louis University campus. Even earlier in the morning, the university’s assistant vice president called that student representative to remind them to remind ME that “SLU is a Catholic, Jesuit institution, and this talk should not violate that, aka not speaking to the pro-choice agenda.”
(The student organizer listed on the event posting did not respond to our email seeking comment yesterday. A SLU spokeswoman did not immediately return a call seeking comment this morning.)

Gay continued,

My temper flared immediately. I don’t like vague threats of censorship. I hate the word agenda when it is used as a blunt instrument, when it is used to imply that one with a so-called agenda is up to no good. I am a deeply flawed person but I pride myself on being concerned with the greater good, and seeking out goodness in myself and others. I thought about cancelling my appearance but then I reconsidered because really, what would that accomplish?
And so instead of canceling, she spoke, and she spoke directly about abortion.

We recommend reading the entire post on Tumblr — it's an unusually thoughtful take on a subject that all too often ends up in political posturing on both sides. Gay acknowledges the Catholic critique of abortion even while rejecting it, writing, "I understand why Catholicism and so many other religions condemn abortion even if I cannot abide that condemnation. I understand but I place more value on the sanctity of women having the right to choose what happens to their bodies."

She continues,
Until women’s bodies and women’s choices are no longer subject to legislative whim, we are neither equal nor free. This is not an agenda. This is not a political or a controversial stance. This is a matter of justice. This is, for me, a matter of faith.

So, definitely not what SLU had in mind when they asked Gay not to "speak to the pro-choice agenda." 

We'll update this post if we hear back from SLU or the student organizer.

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at sarah.fenske@riverfronttimes.com

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.