TAMPA — Roxane Gay walked onto the stage Thursday evening knowing many in the audience had spent the day watching TV, listening to the radio or scanning the internet.
"Hello, Tampa," she said. "Great to be here on a slow news day."
Laughter floated across nearly full Ferguson Hall, as it would many times during her talk.
The 43-year-old cultural critic, Twitter goddess, Purdue University English professor and bestselling author (Bad Feminist, Hunger and the Marvel Comics series Black Panther: World of Wakanda) appeared at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts as part of the University of South Florida Frontier Forum speaker series.
She opened by reading the introduction of Not that Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, an anthology edited by Gay. It includes her account of being gang raped as a middle-schooler and the lifelong ramifications of that crime.
Gay did not dwell on that personal experience, instead noting the timeliness of the book’s release alongside movements such as #MeToo, #WhyIDidntReport, #BelieveWomen and #BelieveSurvivors.
"The national conversation has shifted more towards listening and believing women when we say we have been harmed by toxic masculinity,’’ she said.
Those movements speak to events in Washington, she said, as she compared the 1991 testimony of law professor Anita Hill before the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas to the testimony it heard Thursday from psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford.
"Here we are again,’’ Gay said. "There is no doubt in my mind that Ford is telling the truth and that Brett Kavanaugh assaulted her. None at all.
"I am astonished that 27 years later, another woman is in the same exact position, but also, I am not. After all, Clarence Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court despite Anita Hill’s testimony (that Thomas sexually harassed her when they worked together)."
Gay said she believed Ford’s account that Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, tried to sexually assault her at a high school party decades ago. Gay spent several semesters studying at Yale, where she became familiar with his fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon, or DKE.
"Brett Kavanaugh’s fraternity was the worst frat on campus when it comes to drinking," Gay said. "When I heard he was a ‘Deke,’ I knew he did it."
Among the attendees were 20 members of Florida Southern College’s Women’s Advocacy Club who drove a school van from Lakeland. Club co-president Alie Brewer said before the event that she had not read many of Gay’s works but she knew her from social media.
"After seeing her, I am going to start with Hunger and read them all,’’ Brewer said. "We came because we want the group to become more aware of issues surrounding women, and I had chills the whole time.
"When she talked about not being complacent and free speech, though, that’s what impacted me the most.’’
The author’s parents, Nicole and Michael Gay, drove up from their home in Naples to attend their daughter’s talk. Though Roxane declined to speak to the media, her parents were happy to talk about her work.
Nicole Gay talked about how her daughter’s forthrightness has exposed the author to cyberbullying. The mother said she fears for Roxanne’s safety at times.
"But this happens,’’ Nicole said. "This is important work. We are proud of her.’’
This is the parents’ first visit with Roxane in six months. They’ll probably spend a lot of time talking about the Kavanaugh hearings.
"Truthfully, I think it is a sad state of affairs when you see the spectacle taking place,’’ Michael Gay said. "On either side, the truth does not drive the discussion.’’
Still, he said the knowledge of what his daughter went through stays on his mind, particularly when he thinks of the stories told by women such as Ford.
"I just don’t think the victim would go and invent something like that," Michael Gay said.
Contact Piper Castillo at [email protected]. Follow @Florida_PBJC.