Math Phobia and Homophobia: Two Sides of the Same Coin?


Daniel S. Levine

August 31, 1997


1959 Sandy Lane
Fort Worth, TX 76112


From Suzanne Pharr, Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism

What will the world be like without homophobia in it ó for everyone, female and male, whatever sexual identity?

ē Kids wonít be called tomboys or sissies; they'll just be who they are, able to do what they wish.

ē People will be able to love anyone, no matter what sex; the issue will simply be whether or not she/he is a good human being, compatible and loving.

ē Affection will be opened up between women and men, women and women, men and men, and it wonít be centered on sex; people wonít fear being called names if they show affection to someone who isn't a mate or a potential mate.

ē If affection is opened up, then isolation will be broken down for all of us, especially for those who generally experience little physical affection, such as unmarried old people.

ē Women will be able to work at whatever jobs they want without being labeled masculine.

ē There will be less violence if men do not feel they have to prove and assert their manhood. Their desire to dominate and control will not spill over from the personal to the level of national and international politics and the use of bigger and better weapons to control other countries.

From Sarah Voss, What Number is God?

Ours is a world steeped in contradiction and paradox. Our minds, that is, our cognitive processes, appear to rely heavily on metaphor (with its "is and is not" character) and are likewise made of the fiber of contradiction and inconsistency. Mathematics, by offering us a meta-structure within which we can place both the universe and our minds, promises us the hope of reaching a kind of understanding and acceptance of our place in the universe. Fundamental to this epistemy (way of knowing) is the notion that there is not just one epistemy, but that there are epistemies ó many ways of knowing. Again, mathematics provides us with a pattern so that we might collect all of these different (often contradictory, paradoxical) ways of knowing into an integrated whole, a whole that, paradoxically, we can only partially know.


Math phobia and homophobia are related? Huh? What on earth does fear of particular subject matter have to do with hatred and prejudice directed toward a group of people?

I hope to show that they are indeed related. Walling off a part of mental life leads us as a society to deny and denigrate the contributions not only of an aspect of thinking, but of the people who are adept at that aspect of thinking. Now let me put this in perspective: there is a difference in degree here. Homosexuals have been the object of hate crimes, including murder, for their sexual orientation. They have been in many cases deprived of civil rights or health benefits, and not allowed to publicly acknowledge their partners. None of this has happened to mathematicians; the only cases I know where math has led to someone being murdered were professors at Stanford and UC San Diego being bumped off by students upset about the progress of their dissertations, and that hardly counts! But on a smaller scale, math phobia has some points of analogy with prejudices directed at other groups, including both gay men and lesbians. And as the readings hint, the mathematical experience, like the gay experience, can make a strong contribution to reintegration and holistic thinking at both the personal and societal level.

This conclusion comes from one who enjoys playing around with ideas and forming connections between them. But it also comes from more personal experience. In the early 1980s when my wife Lorraine and I lived in Houston, I got into a conversation about social change with someone we both knew from politics. It turned out my friend Linda, like me, was from a privileged upper middle class background. She asked me how it was that in spite of that background I had developed a leftist orientation and a sympathy for the oppressed. She said her own radicalism had roots in the fact that as a child she had been made to feel Different because she had been adopted. I didnít have a ready answer for Linda, but later thought about it and realized I had also been made to feel Different for other reasons. Namely, I was taunted in school for being quite a bit better than average in mathematics, and being worse than average in physical coordination and sports.

Homophobia, of course, affects not only gays and lesbians, but also heterosexuals who show outward behavior that suggests being gay or lesbian. So naturally, for bad coordination I got my share of taunts like "Fag" and "Swish" (as well as "Jerk" and "Spastic"). (Also there were times I dished out such taunts to others, which Iím not proud of but was par for the course back then.) But how analogous are taunts like "Nerd," "Geek," and "Einstein" given for math ability!

And yet, in adolescence I clung to math because it provided the opposite of the "fag" image. Adolescent boys who are afraid they might be gay do other things to compensate for it. As Warren Blumenfeld discusses in his book Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price, some of these boys compensate by becoming heterosexually active prematurely, without being emotionally close to the girls they sleep with or even particularly enjoying the sex. So homophobia is a contributing factor to teenage pregnancy. The values of my family made me feel this option wasnít open to me, and the athletic option wasnít open to me either. But going for a career in the (still) male-dominated field of mathematics was. I toyed with the idea of switching my major to psychology or something related but was afraid it was too "sissy." Later, a feeling of professional security enabled me to build bridges to psychology and finally, at an official level, make the switch from an academic appointment in mathematics to one in psychology. But mathematics is still a valuable part of my heritage, just as Lorraine and I are UUs but still treasure our Jewish heritage.

Now what does math phobia consist of, who suffers from it, and where does it come from? There are no simple and consistent answers to those questions, but some trends are visible. First of all, it differs across cultures. Since the 1980s a team of educational psychologists from the University of Michigan, Harold Stevenson, Chuansheng Chen, Shin-Ying Lee, and James Stigler, has been comparing American, Taiwanese, and Japanese children at the same socioeconomic level in mathematical achievement at school. While all three cultures are comparable in verbal learning, the American kids are well behind the Oriental kids in learning math even at the age of 5! Stevenson and his colleagues did not explain this on the basis of genetic difference. Rather, they explained it by pointing to lower expectations, specifically about math and arithmetic, by American parents and teachers. This the psychologists attributed to an American tendency to believe that mathematical ability is something you either are or arenít born with, and only a minority of people have it. Japanese and Taiwanese, on the other hand, are more likely to believe that anyone can be successful in mathematics with hard work.

The closest other countries to the U.S. in beliefs about math are probably Canada and England. I know from a few months in London that the English are, like Americans, worried that too many of the best technical students at their universities are foreign. Continental Europe is somewhat in between the Americans and the Japanese. But two of my former colleagues in the University of Texas at Arlington math department, one from the Netherlands and the other from Poland, both have told me that the sociological concept of "nerd" has no equivalent in their cultures!

I donít have a good theory of why these cross-cultural differences arose ó except that Americans also have been found by social psychologists to have a stronger belief in individual traits than most other cultures, perhaps because of the strong individualism in our character and our economic system. But we can examine our cultural conventional wisdom (or as I call it in my trade book, "common nonsense") about mathematics and about mathematicians. What is it we are afraid of?

Part of it is captured by this T-shirt. For those who canít see it clearly, it is based on a cartoon showing two scientists standing by a blackboard. On the left side of the board are some formulas. In the center is written in capitals, "THEN A MIRACLE OCCURS." On the right are more formulas. In the caption, one of the scientists says to the other, "I think you should be more explicit here in Step Two."


So part of the image of math is being obscure, esoteric, out of touch with the real world. And yet the same people who feel that grudgingly admit that math has important practical applications. The nationally syndicated and Chicago-based columnist Mike Royko, several months before his untimely death, wrote a column inspired by the discovery that the Unabomber appeared to be Ted Kaczynski, a former Assistant Professor of Math at Berkeley. Roykoís column basically said that the Kaczynski story confirmed his belief that people with "mathematical minds" (something Iím not sure exists, by the way) "tend to be kind of weird." He credited "such people" with creating the nuclear age and the laptop computer. But he added that Kaczynski "made the mistake of looking for the kind of order and logic in the real world that he had in the world of math."

There is a funny and personal side to the Mike Royko story. At the end of his column he left his e-mail address. So I sent him a long message, told him he was one of my heroes when I was a graduate student in Chicago, and appealed to him as a fellow progressive to avoid blanket stereotypes of groups. After all, I said, knowing your background Iím sure you have strong objections to Polish jokes. So guess what he sent me back on e-mail: a Polish joke! Iíll tell it to anybody who asks me. He added he was from the "Jackie Mason school of sensitivity." So at least he was an equal opportunity basher with a sense of humor.

Also, people sometimes say, "I wanted to get an engineering (or business) degree but couldn't hack the math." That was the one aspect of my job as a math instructor I hated the most. I enjoy helping people believe in and fulfill their dreams, and did not relish the role that the mass educational system had forced on me of being a gatekeeper who stood between people and their dreams. And let me stress that while this is the face of mathematics a lot of people see, it is not the nature of mathematics! It is simply the result of a factory-like school system combined with the cultural belief that some people have mathematical skill and others donít, and that itís the job of schools to weed them out ó a belief that the most progressive mathematics educators donít share.

Yet math phobia as a belief system is self-inconsistent. On the one hand, math and mathematicians are often regarded as esoteric and mysterious and detached from the real world. On the other hand (particularly by some people who consider themselves artistic and romantic) math and mathematicians are often regarded as mechanical, soulless, mundane, and dull. How can they be both over-mundane and other-worldly at the same time?

Such inconsistency is found in prejudice against any institution or group of people. Take homophobia, for example. Suzanne Pharr, in the book the first reading came from, complains that lesbians are accused of hating men and also accused of wanting to be like men. Gay men have experienced the flip side of that, being accused both of hating women and of being effeminate.

There are some other peculiar analogies between math phobia, or the part of it thatís an actual prejudice, and homophobia. One of the big arguments of homophobes, particularly when campaigning against gays in professions like teaching, is that homosexuals (presumably since they donít reproduce) are out to convert heterosexuals to a homosexual orientation. Analogously, mathematicians are accused, as in Roykoís column, of wanting to impose a strait-jacketed, ultra-logical, mathematical understanding on the rest of the world and other realms of knowledge. And itís equally untrue. A graduate student in Interdisciplinary Humanities at my university, who was taking a reading course with me, looked at a book Iím writing on scientific bases of human attitudes, and accused me of "trying to quantify love." I told him no, I was trying to love-ify quanta! He had to laugh at that.

A lot of elements contribute to math phobia. But one of them may be the flip side of male homophobia, that is, the fear of lesbianism in women. The math educator Sheila Tobias wrote a very good book in the late 1970s on overcoming math anxiety. She said that women were the leading, but not the only, victims of math anxiety. Since then, the sex ratios in math and related areas such as engineering have equalized a little, but not as much as they have in many other professions such as medicine, law, the ministry, and biological science. So Tobiasí comments are still timely despite the progress that has been made. And she said for women, a large part of the unconscious dynamics involved suppressing their own mathematical skills for fear of looking "masculine" in the eyes of society. They fear that math will make them look "hard" and suppress their softness and femininity. And this is the flip side of men being homophobic because they fear their own "soft" sides! In fact, women who go into math donít fit any stereotypes. For example, there is a woman I went to high school with who was an attractive brunette, a dancer and choreographer, a cheerleader, an officer in the Student Council ó and later became Chair of the Math Department at the Newark campus of Rutgers University.

Tobiasí book discusses what goes on at clinics that help people with math, particularly with doing word problems. She gives examples of people, mainly women, going through a problem and doing it perfectly well, but then saying in effect, "Oh, this couldnít be right, because this is math and Iím no good at math." These women have absorbed one of societyís false myths about mathematics: that since there is only one right answer, there is only one right method of getting the answer, and finding it out involves pure mechanical drudgery with no creativity or intuition.

Just the opposite is true. Jacques Hadamard, a French mathematician, wrote a book in the 1940s about the psychology of mathematical research, based on interviews with many of his own colleagues. One of his startling conclusions was that mathematicians donít usually think in the realm of pure abstraction. Rather, they translate very general math concepts into visual and kinesthetic images, and their images are unique and idiosyncratic to each mathematician. (I can identify with that because there is one advanced mathematical concept that, for reasons having to do with an episode from my student days, is indelibly associated for me with the taste of Chinese sweet and sour pork!) And these images help the researchers establish an intuition about relationships among these concepts; reasoning only comes in later, to verify whether their intuitions are in fact correct. Another mid-century mathematician, Tobias Dantzig (quoted in Sarah Vossís book), said about the symbolism of his field: "the tremendous importance of this symbolism lies not in ... sterile attempts to banish intuition from the realm of human thought, but in its unlimited power to aid intuition in creating new forms of thought."

There has always been, in fact, a playful and artistic and whimsical aspect to math. After all, Alice in Wonderland was written by a logician, and GŲdel, Escher, Bach by a mathematically inclined computer scientist. And the title of the latter book reminds us that many people see a connection between mathematical and musical talent.

But should we simply let that kind of thing be a game that only a few people with special skill can play? Or is there a benefit for society from reducing math phobia overall? I think spreading mathematical literacy yields many benefits, both at the spiritual and the pragmatic levels.

Spiritually, if (as we UUs like to say) we wish to see the whole of life and creation as an interdependent web, the same should be true of the whole of knowledge. Any two disciplines or fields of study are related and influence each other, and mathematics is closely tied to the structure of the world and nature (including the mind!) ó which doesnít mean that we can "reduce nature to equations." Just as I have devoted much of my life to connections between mathematics and psychology, my friend Sarah Voss (whom I first met at the 1994 General Assembly in Fort Worth) has been devoting much of her life to the connections between mathematics and religion. She lives in Omaha and is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister (currently without a church but having served as an interim minister in Cedar Rapids). She also taught mathematics for several years at various colleges and universities in Nebraska and worked for a while in a regional math education consortium. In her books and other teaching materials, she has gone through the history of mathematical symbolism used in religious worship, starting with the mysticism of numbers and geometric solids developed by the ancient Greek Pythagoras and his followers.

As the reading from Sarahís book hints, a knowledge of math can do just the opposite of what many people fear it will do. Rather than straight-jacketing human thought and imposing one right way of doing things, math helps us see reality as dynamic, ever-changing, and full of paradoxes. (An example of a math paradox: the even numbers are a "smaller" set than the whole numbers, but to each whole number you can associate exactly one even number by multiplying it by 2. This can only work because there are infinitely many numbers.) Since the 1960s, in this same vein, mathematicians have discovered how to discuss and work with chaos. This has brought their work closer to Eastern and pagan mysticism, as well as generating by computer some beautiful fractal patterns like the one on another T-shirt. And note a parallel with the honored role that gays have found in several Native American societies, such as the Navaho and Sioux, as shamans and spiritual leaders, precisely because they are perceived as "paradoxical" people who bridge the usual division between male and female.


Math can yield other benefits for our attitudes and ways of thinking and feeling. If we see life as dynamic, we see people as dynamic: not stuck in "character traits" but able to change. Also math helps us see patterns, interconnections, and useful analogies between different domains. As the Nineteenth Century Frenchman Joseph Fourier said, "mathematics compares the most diverse phenomena and discovers the secret analogies that unite them." (As an example of that way of thinking: my former graduate student saw an analogy between unresponsive bureaucracies and people with frontal lobe damage.) Finally, the formal proof aspect of math, the rigorous search for universal truth it involves, can aid us in seeing through social conventions to the real truth of things ó to the naked emperor, as it were.

Pragmatically, overcoming widespread math phobia would help Americans keep up with the Japanese (and in the near future, Koreans, Chinese, and Indians) in technological development. And it can keep many professionals from committing some major bloopers. There are examples in a book by the mathematician John Paulos called Innumeracy (which is his name for the mathematical analog of illiteracy). One of them was a weatherman who said there was a 50% chance of rain on Saturday, and a 50% chance of rain on Sunday, so adding them together there was a 100% chance of rain some time during the weekend. Another thatís discussed in psychology textbooks is a doctor who tests a patient for a rare form of cancer, using a skin test for which 90% of patients with this cancer test positive; when a patient tests positive, the doctor concludes, wrongly, that he or she has a 90% probability of having cancer.

Now letís conclude by bringing back the homophobia connection. There do seem to be genetic differences between individuals in mathematical skill. Not everyone, perhaps, is cut out to be a professional mathematician, just as not everyone is cut out to be a starter on the Dallas Cowboys. But the brain differs from the rest of the body in that its function is to mediate between the body and the outside environment ó and in order to do this effectively, it must (and does, through the chemicals at its synapses) change with the environment. So just as I had supportive voice teachers who convinced me by sheer "mind over matter" that I could be a good amateur singer, almost anyone can under the right conditions can learn to develop basic numeracy and appreciation for the philosophical role of math. (In fact, there is or was a clinic in New York City called Mind Over Math!)

I believe roughly the same thing is true about sexual orientation. Whether someone turns out homosexual or heterosexual as an adult depends a great deal on genetic endowment. (I hesitate to say itís completely genetic, because while I donít know the literature about the "gay gene," I know a behavioral geneticist at the University of California at San Diego who doesnít strike me as a bigot and has expressed professional skepticism about the concept.) But as with math skill, gayness versus straightness may be a continuum or "Yin/Yang" rather than a sharp wall. I think all of us have some potential to feel physical attraction as well as love for people of both genders. And the more we admit this, the more we will overcome homophobia. For like all prejudiced people, the homophobe fears in others the reflection of his or her own secret feelings.

Society's common nonsense encourages these splits by telling us we must be hard or soft, rational or emotional, intellectual or spiritual. New Agers donít help when they say "get out of your intellect (pointing to the head) and into your feelings (pointing to the heart)," when the truth is that both are in both places! We can have our cake and eat it too ó and a synthetic religion like Unitarian Universalism should encourage us to. We can be passionate about ideas like many old Jewish socialists, and mystical about nature like many neo-Pagans. The clinical neuroscientist Antonio Damasio blames Descartes for the cultural belief that reason and emotion are opposites. In a recent book called Descartesí Error, Damasio discussed patients with damage to a part of the frontal lobes who are normal on memory and cognitive tests (some of them have very high IQs, in fact) but lack the usual emotional reactions to sensory events (for example, they can report having driven on ice and not having felt scared). If the social mythology were true, these patients would be excellent, ultra-rational decision makers a la Mr. Spock of Star Trek. The truth is they are terrible decision makers. Damasioís favorite patient can never decide which of several restaurants to eat at because none of them "grab" him. And despite his great intelligence, he has trouble holding a job for any length of time.

But while Damasio aptly criticized Descartesí error, I think he made an error of his own. At the end of his book, he said that the emotions needed to motivate decisions have to be mainly avoidance of pain, and that he couldnít imagine a society based on pursuit of pleasure. This is a cynicism which a liberal religion like ours needs to reject. We need to be rationally and emotionally motivated to pursue the pleasure of maximum wholeness and connectedness with each other, regardless of gender and sexual orientation, and minimum name-calling. And the whole spectrum of the human intellect, from mathematics to the arts and back, needs to be employed in the service of that goal.


Daniel S. Levine has been an active member of First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, since 1983. He is a Professor of Psychology, and former Associate Professor of Mathematics, at the University of Texas at Arlington. His research combines both fields.