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AN22 Panel Series Examines LGBTQ+ Identity and Inclusion in the Applied Mathematics Community

By Jillian Kunze

LGBTQ+ applied mathematicians may face a variety of unique hurdles throughout their careers. During a two-part minisymposium session of presentations by LGBTQ+ mathematicians at the 2022 SIAM Annual Meeting (AN22)—which took place this July in Pittsburgh, Pa.—participants of two hybrid panels discussed their experiences as openly LGBTQ+ individuals within the applied mathematics community. The first panel consisted of more senior faculty members who reflected on their careers and shared visions for the future, while the second panel comprised graduate students who offered a younger perspective. 

Ron Buckmire (Occidental College)—SIAM’s Vice President for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI)—moderated the initial panel, which consisted of Anthony Bonato (Toronto Metropolitan University), Alexander Hoover (Cleveland State University), and Kyle Steffen (University of Texas at Austin). The panelists began by discussing the various ways in which their LGBTQ+ identities had informed their respective journeys as mathematicians. They also reflected on the struggles that they had encountered. For example, they all recounted feeling a sense of loneliness at different points throughout their careers, especially since academic institutions often do not have a large number of visible LGBTQ+ members. Establishing a sense of commonality is especially important for this reason. “For me, my big focus has always been on creating a community and creating visibility,” Hoover said. “Community does not emerge in a vacuum; it needs to be created.” 

Bonato noted the historical lack of LGBTQ+ representation and recognition within the mathematics community, though the current generation of mathematicians is making improvements in this regard. This positive transformation has occurred in incremental steps both small and large. For instance, the AN22 panel established a sense of community and connection between participants and attendees, and Spectra—the association for LGBTQ+ Mathematicians, for which Buckmire and Hoover serve on the Board—is providing even more exposure. “I’m hoping that sense of loneliness that we felt, the next generation won’t feel as much,” Bonato said.

The panelists observed that visibility and acceptance for LGBTQ+ individuals vary across different scientific fields and even within mathematical subfields. A large amount of LGBTQ+ organization has occurred at the Joint Mathematics Meetings, which generally focus on education and theoretical mathematics. As a result, applied math has fallen somewhat behind in terms of acknowledgement and understanding of LGBTQ+ issues. Hoover and Buckmire intend to create a stronger presence within the realm of applied math, along with more associated programming. 

At the 2022 SIAM Annual Meeting, which took place in a hybrid format this July in Pittsburgh, Pa., the first panel of a two-part minisymposium by LGBTQ+ mathematicians discussed many facets of LGBTQ+ inclusion in applied mathematics. Clockwise from top left: Anthony Bonato (Toronto Metropolitan University), Kyle Steffen (University of Texas at Austin), moderator Ron Buckmire (Occidental College), Alexander Hoover (Cleveland State University), and the onsite view in the conference venue.

The discussion then turned to ways in which senior faculty can better serve LGBTQ+ students and junior mathematicians. Hoover recommended taking the lead in sharing one’s identity and always being present for others. “If you have privilege, use it for the greater good,” he said. “Try to figure out [what you can do] for those who have to deal with harassment or are not passing — use that privilege to be more mindful.”

Bonato also suggested reaching out directly to students and younger professionals. “My advice is just to be kind,” he said. “This is a very overlooked thing sometimes. For LGBTQ+ students in particular, be visible, be out if you feel safe to do so, use pronouns, and make people feel safe to use their pronouns.” Steffen offered additional advice for connecting with students. “If there are opportunities for being involved in student groups, that might end up being worthwhile for some of the students,” he said.

When an attendee asked whether LGBTQ+ issues in applied mathematics have gone ignored or unacknowledged, the panelists noted that more activism has taken place in the non-applied mathematics first since a larger number of people work in that area. There are of course exceptions to this relationship; for example, the field of geometry is similar in size to applied mathematics but has a large, visible LGBTQ+ presence. This kind of showing requires that numerous individuals actively work to create programs, develop a sense of community, and encourage a strong presence at conferences. While minisymposium sessions for LGBTQ+ mathematicians may come across as niche, for instance, a plenary session could be far more visible.

Another audience member wondered about the merits of holding specific LGBTQ+ sessions versus distributing LGBTQ+ presenters throughout the conference who then note their identities in their talks — a question of community versus visibility. “I like both pieces,” Bonato said. “I like the idea of having these more focused sessions, and then also identifying or putting up a slide within regular (non-specific LGBTQ+) sessions.”

To close out the first panel, Buckmire asked participants about the kinds of changes that they would like to see in the future. Bonato wants LGBTQ+ researchers to become more involved in decision-making processes, noting the original plan to hold the 2022 International Congress of Mathematicians in Russia (the event eventually commenced virtually); it seemed that few LGBTQ+ voices had helped guide that choice, given Russia’s discriminatory laws towards the LGBTQ+ community. He encouraged LGBTQ+ mathematicians to volunteer for boards and other decision-making bodies to help avoid these types of scenarios. “Without our voices, nobody is going to speak up for us,” Bonato said. “The queer community has a long history of this. We have stand up for ourselves; it’s up to us, it’s up to the people here, now, listening to my voice.”

Conferences could include some small, intentional changes to increase representation, such as offering the option to include pronouns and flags or other symbols of LGBTQ+ identity on nametags. Hoover hopes to see more programming specifically for LGBTQ+ applied mathematicians, such as workshops to encourage mentorship. “One thing that’s missing is organizational representation at small conferences,” Steffen added. Buckmire noted that the needs and desires of LGBTQ+ people in small settings are similar to those of other marginalized groups, so event organizers should act intentionally to make meetings as inclusive as possible to all identities. 

The second panel during the two-part minisymposium of presentations by LGBTQ+ mathematicians at the 2022 SIAM Annual Meeting—which took place in a hybrid format this July in Pittsburgh, Pa.—consisted of graduate students who offered their perspectives on LGBTQ+ inclusion in applied mathematics. Clockwise from top left: moderator Joseph Nakao (University of Delaware), Anthony Chen (University of Michigan), Ryan Creedon (University of Washington), and Hermie Monterde (University of Manitoba).

The second panel took place the following day and was moderated by Joseph Nakao, a Ph.D. student at the University of Delaware who also serves on Spectra’s Board. The panelists—graduate students Ryan Creedon (University of Washington), Anthony Chen (University of Michigan), and Hermie Monterde (University of Manitoba)—first discussed the aspects that they looked for when choosing a graduate school. Monterde moved to Canada from the Philippines, where she did not have rights as a transgender woman, for her graduate studies so that she could flourish as a mathematician. Chen mentioned that a big factor in his decision was current graduate students’ investment in diversity, even if efforts from the department administration seemed limited.

LGBTQ+ graduate students face unique challenges that faculty can help address, though efforts in that regard are not always shown. “One thing that happens is that a lot of organizing responsibility falls on us as LGBTQ+ grad students,” Chen said. “There is very little interest in change, so it really falls on us as grad students to push things forward. It’s very exhausting — grad school is already tough, and we’re trying to fix departmental culture issues.”

Monterde also felt this heightened sense of responsibility and had little faith that non-LGBTQ+ senior faculty would do anything to help abate it. “There are two hurdles for students that I see where I am right now: the lack of EDI initiatives within the department, and the lack of financial support for graduate students,” she said. She added that continued support from senior faculty for all marginalized groups would be impactful, as would financial support that allows graduate students to attend meetings and become active in their communities. “It is expensive to be here, when really this is something that—for us as queer people or wherever you are on the spectrum—is so important to get connected and to feel that sense of community,” Creedon agreed.

Spectra is currently fundraising to enhance its existing programs and create future programs like travel support for LGBTQ+ individuals. Anyone who is interested can become a member for free and get involved by volunteering for different leadership positions. The organization welcomes new ideas and members to help accomplish its goal “to support and encourage LGBTQ+ individuals in mathematics by working to create an inclusive and affirming environment that supports the well-being and professional development of LGBTQ+ mathematicians.” 

Jillian Kunze is the associate editor of SIAM News.