My research examined the experiences of LGBT+ students within Irish third level mathematics education. My goal was to determine what hurdles LGBT+ mathematics students in Ireland face and how they might be negated.
‘The Queer Mathematics Teacher’ newsletter ends with the quote, "Being queer saved my life. Often, we see queerness as deprivation. But when I look at my life, I saw that queerness demanded an alternative innovation from me. I had to make alternative routes; it made me curious; it made me ask, 'Is this enough for me?'" —Ocean Vuong
I fell in love with maths because to me it represented something that couldn’t be wrong. It was a space where who you are doesn’t matter if you are willing to put in the work. I love maths because of the necessity to face problems with creativity. As a queer person, I have had to figure out where I fit and who I want to be. Queerness demands a sense of creativity, an ability to break things down and build them back up, and a willingness to try different pathways. The adaptability and creativity that I’ve developed because of my queerness and my love of my queerness are the same reasons I developed a love of mathematics. Maths gave me a way to find myself and a place where I felt able to fit in no matter my societal perception, and I want anyone who is interested in mathematics to be able to experience the joy of mathematics and engage with mathematics in a way that they feel comfortable bringing the entirety of themself.
Data for this research was collected through a survey distributed by email over a two-month period. I contacted lecturers and administrators at the nine universities in Ireland offering mathematics courses to distribute the survey to their mathematics students. I also performed a literature review of 31 papers discussing LGBT+ experiences and issues within STEM and mathematics.
The survey received 197 responses, 69 of which were LGBT+ identified. Of these 69, Sixty-six were undergraduate students, and three were PhD students. 67 respondents identified as Caucasian. Respondents came from DCU, NUIG, TCD, TUD, UCD, UCC, and UL, with the most from TCD (32). Fifty-four respondents were cisgender, while 14 identified as trans or non-binary. A majority of the respondents (53) identified as agnostic or atheist.
As there are more than 40 LGBT+ respondents, the central limit theorem can be applied to assume normality of data distribution. The results from this survey can be generalised to the population of undergraduate LGBT+ Caucasian students within Irish mathematics programmes. Using 95% confidence intervals, between 4.93% and 23.13% of the population have experienced first-hand exclusionary behaviour. Between 10.68% and 32.18% of the population have witnessed or heard about exclusionary behaviour, such as student and professor bigotry with regards to gender presentation and gender identity, sexual harassment, misogynistic attitudes, and a lack of gender-neutral toilets as well as more male toilets than female toilets. Between 10.68% and 32.18% of the population have seriously considered leaving their university. Students cited mental health issues, overwork, lack of support, and Covid as reasons they considered leaving their programme.
I plan to do further statistical analysis of the data I have collected and will update this post with the resulting findings.
I initially planned to compare LGBT+ experiences to cisgender and heterosexual experiences, but after completing my literature review, I determined the best way to examine the LGBT+ climate within Irish mathematics, while keeping within my goal to ‘queer’ my research, would be to examine only the LGBT+ experiences reported within the survey. I included questions addressing experiences of exclusionary behaviour and comfort within college, home, and work environments that allow for the data to be analysed in this way without sacrificing the integrity of the data. In doing so, I centred the queer voices within mathematics without applying an ‘otherness’ to LGBT+ identities and negating LGBT+ people’s belonging in mathematics.
The changes to mathematics education that I would recommend based on my literature review, are unfortunately changes that universities are unlikely to want to implement. There is no simple answer of ‘just put pride flags up in lecture halls.’
Queer people have a unique experience of marginalisation compared to other marginalised groups. Queerness is not a visible trait and therefore can remain invisible to others unless disclosed. Queerness is not a directly heritable trait meaning that most queer people are raised by cisgender heterosexual people and therefore don’t have a direct link to community. The issues that impact queer students are institutional and societal. In mathematics, queerness is invisible unless actively sought out. This puts the onus on queer students to find their own representation within the heavily cisgender white male pedigree of mathematics research and development.
The simplest things that universities can do are not total solutions, but rather support for queer students. There need to be greater levels of support within colleges such as counsellors who are better informed on trauma, queer issues, disability, and intersectional identities, national societies for queer people in STEM – like Spectra in the US – and DEI trainings for lecturers and TAs to address biases.
Integrating social justice into mathematics curriculum could be beneficial at an undergraduate level. Many undergraduate mathematics students do not plan to go into academia or mathematics research, but rather fields which apply mathematical learning; therefore, many undergraduate mathematics students could benefit from social justice in the curriculum which would not only benefit queer students and students of other marginalised identities, but also provide all students with an understanding of the human aspects of mathematics. This could serve to increase Irish undergraduate students’ employability within international markets as other undergraduate mathematics courses do not include this aspect of mathematics within their degree programmes.
The main issues impacting queer people are driven by societal prejudices against queerness. The greatest solution to challenging underrepresentation and inequality within mathematics is to fight for better rights within society as a whole and to champion acceptance and support of queer people on a national and international scale. In the same way that not being actively racist is not enough, queerness can’t simply be treated as non-negative but rather must be actively supported – a sentiment supported by Professors Barthelemy and Atherton’s LGBT+ Physicists papers.
There needs to be change at all levels of society such as giving queer people the opportunity to be themselves openly without fear of harassment or assault, zero tolerance of bigoted attitudes and harmful behaviour towards queerness, institutional and individual efforts to include queerness in a meaningful way that is more than surface level bare minimum inclusion, nicknamed ‘add-queers-and-stir’ by Kai Rands, and governmental policies to affect societal attitudes.
Overall, I am proud of the work I did this summer. I found that I enjoyed the process of researching and would like to continue my research in this area. I will continue my literature review and consolidate my readings and my findings to write a paper which I plan to try and get published. This project solidified for me that I would like to pursue a career in research of some kind.