On performing queerness and mathematics: Emily Riehl interviews Mike Hill

(Guest post by Emily Riehl.)

A few months ago, after our post for Pride month, the i/e editorial board reached out to Spectra to request a guest blog post. That led to the wonderful interview that follows, which was conducted during the Floer Homology and Homotopy Theory summer school, co-organized by Mike and at which Emily spoke, that was held at UCLA in July.

ER: When did you know you wanted to become a mathematician? Or when did you first identify as a mathematician?

MH: Oh man, identify as a mathematician is such a trickier one. Like many aspects of my life, it was kind of obvious to everybody [laughter] and it just took a while before I reached that point.

I did think for a while that I wanted to be also an entomologist and I wanted to figure out some way to combine them. But I kind of wanted to be the classic victorian style where you would go out into the wilderness and learn about bugs and their lives. But it turns out a lot of entomology now is learning about bugs and finding out effective ways to kill them and this wasn’t quite what I was looking for.

ER: So you anticipated the follow up, which is when did you first think you might be queer and what words would you have used to describe it at the time?

MH: It was like a stroke of lightning. I was reading Mercedes Lackey’s “Magic’s Pawn” and I reached the point where the main character comes out as a gay. It was the first time I had actually ever experienced gay in literature. I remember being totally shocked and completely scandalized.

Growing up in Baton Rouge — now of course I’ve deeply repressed any memory of what I was like as a child — but apparently I was not as accepting of gays. And then I read this book and I’m like “oh my god, I’m gay.” And it was just like that.

ER: How old were you?

MH: 13. Then it was a long time of being like “well I can’t tell anybody, obviously.” Then I did junior ROTC in high school because there was a program in my high school where you could either do PE or you could do ROTC, and let’s be honest. So I did ROTC with all the other artsy kids. ROTC was a safe space for the kids who were maybe a little gender non-conforming. And that’s when I first started coming out, to people there. I was 16 when I first started telling people. By my senior year in high school I was completely out in school and it was a surprising non-issue.

ER: As you were developing a queer self-identity, was there any intersection between that and your mathematical identity?

MH: No. It was one thing that was always a bit of an internal disconnect for me. When I was growing up the images that you would see of queer people were always like, what I think of now, as almost minstrel scenes. Like Jack in “Will and Grace.” These are the role models that you’d have: things like fashion, dance, art.

A lot of my concept of “Gay” came through things like literature. There isn’t a whole lot of literature written about gay mathematicians or even someone in STEM. There are no movies like this.

ER: Well there’s the Turing film now.

MH: It doesn’t really end well for him. It was so much so that when I was a first year in college I had trouble reconciling how to handle the fact that I was super interested in things like queer and feminist theory and also I knew I wanted to be a mathematician and I didn’t know how to bide my time. All my friends in the queer community were taking all these gay and lesbian studies classes but I didn’t really have time for that because I was taking an awful lot of math courses. I was wondering, should I try to do a dual major? Is this how one performs gay?

ER: Did this affect your experience in a mathematics classroom? Or were you focused on the math and not really embodied in that headspace?

MH: There’s no external marking in queer identity: it’s all performative marking. I never knew if any of the faculty who were teaching classes were LGBT. I never really knew about any of the other students. There was no space where that was really discussed. You talked about the theorems and you talked about confusions about the theorems. There was actually never discussions of personal life.

In fact, Mike [Hopkins] and I met the summer after my junior year in college. He was my undergraduate thesis advisor. It was two years of us knowing each other and meeting weekly and having conversations before I felt comfortable coming out to him.

ER: Do you remember that conversation?

MH: Yeah. I remember having to really psych myself up. And actually sitting in the dining hall with a bunch of my friends being like “I think I should tell him.” Because we had started to really get to know each other.

ER: And at this point you’re totally out in your personal life.

MH: I had finished two years of running the LGBT group on campus and I was worried “do I say something?” “how do I have the conversation?” And I was super nervous, and we met and I’m like “oh I’m gay” and he’s like “thanks for saying something. I appreciate you telling me.” He literally answered in the way that every time you have that conversation you hope someone you answer.

But it was crazy. I was agonizing over this for like a week before. I’m sure I drove all my friends crazy being like “do we have this conversation?” This was really the last time where it was difficult for me to come out to somebody.

ER: This has clearly been a very important professional relationship for you.

MH: Exactly. We got along really well professionally. I really liked the style of math he was doing. I wanted to continue in that area. I wanted to continue working with him in that area. He ended up then becoming my PhD advisor and long-time collaborator. That relationship was really transformative not just for my early career but for the entire arc of my career to date. So coming out to him felt like a big risk.

ER: Returning to something you said previously about queer identity being something that’s not necessarily visible but that is performed, I remember very clearly when I first met you. It was at the Fields Institute in 2010. I was still in grad school. What I remember was that you were the first person I had seen performing queerness in a mathematics research context. You were dressed more or less like you are today.

MH: I’m wearing a t-shirt and jeans.

ER: Sure. Right. [laughter] You’ve described yourself as snarky. It was your affect, your way of speaking, and I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen, because it was something I had never seen before.

MH: Thank you.

ER: It struck me as so you. You were enlarging the space of what is possible in the performance that is the mathematics lecture. So, how did that happen?

MH: I guess like all things organically. Part of it is that I got less and less good at turning it off, at code switching between camping it up with friends vs giving lecture. When I first started teaching, I would try to be conscientious about using less inflected speech, having fewer wild shifts in intonation and less obvious queer markings in discourse. But then I just started to not worry as much.

By the point of Fields Institute 2010, I had my job at Virginia. I actually had tenure at Virginia. And I felt like I could deliberately choose to completely stop trying to worry. Thinking back to when I was a student, I didn’t know a lot of queer mathematicians. Now I know many many queer mathematicians, many whom will say “I was never in.” Okay. But it’s not the kind of thing I knew starting out.

I wanted to start to push that envelope and force mathematicians who claim to be very liberal and progressive — and by and large are extremely liberal and progressive — to recognize that not everyone does math the same way. I think that translates into a lot of things. Not everyone performs math as the white cis het male. There are lots of other things. I perform as a white cis gay male. You perform as a queer woman. I don’t mean to name your identity.

ER: I don’t mind.

MH: I think that it’s important to make it so that people feel more comfortable in these spaces, especially younger people. If I’m giving a talk, at this point I can’t give a talk the way I see other people give talks. I just don’t know how to do it. I only know how to give talks the way I do it. I imagine that’s a response that a lot of people have, that I don’t fit into the box that a lot of other people do.

ER: The way you are framing this narrative now you’re saying that your evolution in performance was enabled by increasing professional status. You’ve also mentioned to me that mathematicians’ tolerance for variability made space for queer sartorial expression prior to this?

MH: Mathematicians by and large are extremely tolerant. As an anecdote about this, I met Teena [Gerhardt] when I was a first year grad student at MIT and we were basically best friends from day one. We got along like a house on fire. I had a shirt that I loved. It was sort of a sweater. It had no sleeves and it was cut in a harlequin pattern, with the diamonds. I wore this all the time. And another grad student came up to me one day and asked “how long have you and Teena been together?” And I was like “Teena and I aren’t dating.” I was probably wearing that shirt. That’s the sense in which mathematicians have a really high tolerance for variation. Mathematicians in general are not going to be as worried. They’re like “this is what you’re wearing? That’s fine I didn’t even notice.”

I always joke that I can go to Europe and bring just a backpack. Why? Because I can wear the same two t-shirts every day and no one will say anything.

ER: I remember being really worried about what I was going to wear for my tenure track job interview and then I realized that nobody I was going to talk to was going to notice at all.

MH: Exactly. No one will remember what you wear.

ER: The dean might, maybe, but no one else.

MH: Right. So it wasn’t so much that I was worried in these situations. It was more for younger people that there is a reason to push. People don’t necessarily notice but sometimes, all of a sudden, someone will, as you did at the Fields Institute.

ER: I think there’s a pretty big caveat that you acknowledged earlier, which is that once you are granted community insider status, however that comes to pass, then there’s a lot of room. But if you’re a student you might not be taken as seriously because maybe you didn’t take right first-year math course or maybe you’re not at an R1 institution.

MH: Or any number of things. There’s a lot of weird and f—-d up hierarchization. I’m super privileged being able to thumb my nose at it. So I try to be mindful in doing so.

ER: I think that the authenticity in your self-presentation is a small way of using your power for good.

MH: Thank you.

Emily Riehl and Mike Hill tear up the dance floor during Pride in Berlin, June 27, 2015, “a date I remember because it was the day after Obergefell v Hodges”, says Emily.

Mike Hill is a rising star in algebraic topology who works on computational aspects in stable homotopy theory, including a stunning solution to the 45-year-old Kervaire Invariant 1 completed in 2009 with Mike Hopkins and Doug Ravenel. He is a full Professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he has taught since 2015. Prior to this, he was an Associate Professor at the University of Virginia, a visitor for a year at Harvard, a Whyburn Instructor at the University of Virginia, a graduate student at MIT, and an undergraduate at Harvard. At UCLA he has taught freshman seminar classes entitled “Art and Math” and “Women in Mathematics”. He is a co-founder for Spectra, the association for LGBTQ+ mathematicians. He has been together with his husband Tim, a Los Angeles based lawyer, for 13 years.

Emily Riehl is a category theorist working on a variety of topics related to homotopy theory. She is an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University, was a Benjamin Peirce and NSF Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard, a PhD student at Chicago, a masters student at Cambridge, and an undergraduate at Harvard. She is also a co-founder for Spectra and will be on the “Out in Mathematics: Professional Issues Facing LGBTQ Mathematicians” panel at the 2018 Joint Meetings in San Diego.

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2 Responses to On performing queerness and mathematics: Emily Riehl interviews Mike Hill

  1. Jonathan Beardsley says:

    Despite not being LGBT, it’s always meant a lot to me to see Mike and Emily give talks and be completely themselves. I am deeply insecure in academic settings, often feeling like an impostor, so hearing about y’all’s struggles, even though you both seem so constantly poised and self-assured, is really meaningful!

  2. Venn Diagram says:

    I am a queer undergrad and thank you so, so much for this interview. I am young and still grappling with these two identities, gay and mathematician, and feeling like I need to perform certain aspects to be truly part of them. Many of the things you said rang true for me—including the observation that it’s very hard to be “different” before you’re granted insider status.

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