SIAM News Blog

Minisymposium at AN21 Explores the Intersection between Mathematics and LGBTQ+ Identity

By Jillian Kunze

The applied mathematics community is inherently made up of people — individuals who discover or create concepts and applications by working together, exchanging information, and relying on each other’s ideas. “Mathematics is a human endeavor,” Ron Buckmire of Occidental College (Oxy) said. “Mathematics is done, taught, discovered, and learned by people.” Buckmire, who is SIAM’s Vice President for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, opened the minisymposium session of presentations by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) mathematicians at the virtual SIAM Annual Meeting (AN21) in July. 

Buckmire began his talk by sharing some current statistics about mathematicians. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, as of 2018 approximately 10 percent of mathematics degree recipients were Latino, roughly four percent were African American, and 42 percent were female. Furthermore, the Annual Survey of the Mathematical Sciences found that only 11 of mathematics Ph.D. recipients in the U.S. were Black women in 2017. These numbers do not reflect either the U.S. population at large or the population of college students. “When we talk about underrepresentation in mathematics, these are the kinds of numbers we are talking about,” Buckmire said.

In recent years, the principles of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice have received more attention in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. As a result, more mathematicians have begun to recognize the importance of understanding the people who make up the mathematical community. However, no data collection efforts currently measure LGBTQ+ representation in mathematics, which makes it difficult to determine the level of underrepresentation that this community faces. 

Despite this lack of data, it is still evident that many issues affect LGBTQ+ members of academia. It is often difficult to locate gender-neutral restrooms on college campuses, and the health insurance plans at many academic institutions do not provide coverage for aspects of gender-related healthcare that are needed by some transgender and non-binary individuals. A longitudinal survey in the U.S. found that LGBTQ+ students in STEM have lower retention rates than their peers, even though they are more likely to engage in undergraduate research. Another study found that lesbian, gay, and bisexual academics are underrepresented in STEM faculty.

During his talk, Buckmire advocated for increased diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice efforts in the mathematics community and encouraged the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in these movements. “Diversity is a fact,” he said. “Once we know that humans are doing math, you have diversity — in experience, gender, in all sorts of unseen ways. However, inclusion is a choice. Whether diverse people will feel comfortable and invited is a choice by the people who create and maintain the system.” He thus believes that institutions should make directed efforts towards equity and actively measure their progress.

During the minisymposium session of presentations by LGBTQ+ mathematicians at the virtual SIAM Annual Meeting, Ron Buckmire described how the intersection of LGBTQ+ identity and the applied mathematics community is not empty.
Buckmire noted that the intersection of LGBTQ+ identity and the applied mathematics community is not empty and demonstrated this by describing his own history, which intertwines academic achievements with an impressive record of LGBTQ+ activism. For example, Buckmire founded “Homo Radio” at WRPI 91.5—a radio program that is still on the air—as a graduate student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. While he was a postdoctoral scholar at Oxy, he co-led a push for the college to extend the benefits that were usually reserved for married couples to domestic partnerships, since same-sex marriage was not yet legalized in the U.S. at that time.

More recently as a professor at Oxy, Buckmire cofounded Spectra, an association for LGBTQ+ mathematicians and allies. Spectra has organized a number of informal events for LGBTQ+ mathematicians and maintains an “Outlist” of LGBTQ+ mathematicians and allies on its website. And because research conferences that are explicitly aimed at LGBTQ+ mathematicians provide an opportunity for attendees to share research, form collaborations, and build a sense of community, Spectra will be holding its first LGBTQ+ in Mathematics Conference in a virtual format on August 18-20, 2021. This event will showcase the work of LGBTQ+ mathematicians and provide an intentional space for networking and discussion. In addition, Spectra hosted a virtual evening reception at AN21 for LGBTQ+ attendees and allies to connect and learn more about the organization.

After Buckmire’s talk, the minisymposium session included several research presentations and closed with a panel discussion about LGBTQ+ inclusion in the applied mathematics community that featured Buckmire, Joseph Nakao (University of Delaware), Alexander Hoover (University of Akron), and Kyle Steffen (University of Texas at Austin). The group discussed efforts that academic departments and other institutions can implement to support LGBTQ+ mathematicians and students, such as hiring more LGBTQ+ faculty. 

“You want to feel included, and one way to feel included is to know that people like you already occupy a particular space,” Buckmire said. “Yes, things will get better, but that doesn't mean we can stand around and not do anything.” Instructors and researchers that reflect cultural diversity and increase visibility for LGBTQ+ researchers can inspire the next generation of mathematicians. The recent increase in mathematical gatherings that support LGBTQ+ mathematicians can also help achieve this goal. Buckmire further described this phenomenon in the paper “Spaces for All: The Rise of LGBTQ+ Mathematics Conferences,” which he coauthored with Anthony Bonato and Juliette Bruce.

This minisymposium served as the first opportunity at a SIAM conference for exclusively LGBTQ+ scientists to present their work. The minisymposium panelists encouraged people to volunteer to host LGBTQ+ events at future SIAM meetings, as well as communicate and advertise them within the broader community. Hopefully, gatherings that support and promote LGTBQ+ scientists will continue to grow in the coming years and make the mathematical community a more welcoming place for everyone.

AN21 attendees can access a recording of this minisymposium and other conference presentations by logging in to the virtual platform. Recordings will be available for three months after AN21.

  Jillian Kunze is the associate editor of SIAM News
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