Queer Word Problems For All Your Alternative Lifestyle Needs

Notes From A Queer Engineer_Rory Midhani_640Header by Rory Midhani
Images via Shutterstock

Standardized tests have favored rich white men for approximately as long as they’ve been around, and it’s still happening today. By my estimation, the gatekeepers of society are long overdue to test a different sort of aptitude. An alternative sort of aptitude, if you know what I mean.

Below are six sample word problems of the sort I believe should be on every standardized test in the country. Take your time, show your work, and remember: this is about girl poweryou can do anything good, this is for all of us.

Stickers will be given liberally for participation. Answers are at the bottom of the page. You may begin now.



1. Shortly after moving in together, Marisol and Casey came to the realization that they both went way overboard on the feminist votive candle trend last year. When they counted them up, they came to a total of 93 candles. In their bedroom, they have 7 display shelves, which can fit 7 candles each. If Marisol and Casey cut down their collection to keep only what can fit on the shelves, how many feminist votive candles will they need to throw out, donate to charity, or give to friends?

2. Rachel is baking mini vegan cupcakes for her book club. There are 12 members of her book club, and Rachel expects each person to eat an average of 4 cupcakes. (Her coconut milk chocolate recipe has been a real hit in the past, even among non-vegans. So.) If Rachel wants to bake all the cupcakes in one go, how many trays of 24 does she need to fill with batter?


3. It’s date night, and instead of going out to their favorite poly play party, Anna, Amanda, Ali, Annalise, Andy and Adrian have decided to stay in, order Thai food, and reconnect. They each want to have one on one discussions about their feelings. Order doesn’t matter. How many discussions about feelings will be had?

4. Syd is making nondenominational holiday cards for incarcerated queer and trans people. They have 250 blue sequins, which they plan to use as snowflakes for the cards. If they distribute the sequins equally on each of the 15 cards, how many sequins will Syd have left?


5. Valerie, Claire, Nikki, Kayla and Shannon are going to brunch this Saturday. Shannon and Nikki are a couple. Valerie and Claire are a couple. Last year, Kayla cheated on Valerie with Shannon. Kayla now wants to get back with one of her exes and everybody knows it — but what they don’t know is which ex she’s trying to get with. If they all sit at the bar, in what order should they sit so that the couples can sit next to each other, Kayla doesn’t have the opportunity to play footsie with her crush, and Shannon and Valerie are as far apart as possible?

6. Erin, Nesreen and Vivian are cooperatively deciding how to arrange the plant in the community garden this year. Vivian has 45 heirloom tomato plants she brought with her from Portland. Erin has 81 brussel sprout plants. Nesreen has 63 sunflower plants. Zoning laws are very flexible in the lesbian separatist commune they belong to, so space limitations are not a pressing issue. If they put the same number of plants in each row and each row has only one type of plant, what is the greatest number of plants they can put in one row?



1. 7×7 = 49. 93-49 = 44. Marisol and Casey need to get rid of 44 feminist votive candles.
2. 12×4 = 48. 48/24 = 2. Rachel needs to fill 2 trays with vegan cupcake batter.
3. Because order doesn’t matter, this is a combination word problem. C(6,2) = (6×5)/(2×1) = 15. 15 discussions about feelings will be had.
4.  250/15 = 16 remainder 10. Syd will have 10 sequins left.
5. To avoid conflict, the seating order should be Shannon, Nikki, Kayla, Claire, Valerie. (Or the reverse.)
6. Factors of 45: 1, 3, 5, 9, 15, 45. Factors of 81: 1, 3, 9, 27, 81. Factors of 63: 1, 3, 7, 9, 21, 63. The greatest common factor is 9. They can put 9 plants in each row of the lesbian separatist community garden.

Notes From A Queer Engineer is a recurring column with an expected periodicity of 14 days. The subject matter may not be explicitly queer, but the industrial engineer writing it sure is. This is a peek at the notes she’s been doodling in the margins.

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Laura Mandanas

Laura Mandanas is a Filipina American living in Boston. By day, she works as an industrial engineer. By night, she is beautiful and terrible as the morn, treacherous as the seas, stronger than the foundations of the Earth. All shall love her and despair. Follow her: @LauraMWrites.

Laura has written 210 articles for us.


  1. Can I have six of these every morning to get my brain out of neutral? Thanks!

    (Also, I solved along while fearing that #6 was going to turn out to be a “what was the bus driver’s middle name?” type question to shame me for caring about doing the math; thank you for not doing that.)

  2. Brilliant. If GCSE maths questions had been more like this (instead of involving things like coloured marbles in undisclosed colour ratios and birds hovering mid-air while you calculate angles), I might have paid more attention in maths class.

  3. I really feel like the answer to that brunch question should be “everyone eats breakfast at home this Saturday”

  4. Thank you for making me laugh out loud and elicit weird looks on the train. The guy who peeked at my phone over my shoulder was definitely the most confused. XD

  5. ARGH, I was fooled into thinking these word problems would be about words. Instead, they are about numbers: my one true enemy. Still. I’m giving it a try.

  6. UPDATE: I solved all but number six, and I’m super proud!!!?!??!!?!?!!!! I can’t believe you have successfully made me do math. MORE PLEASE.

  7. Wow! I think these are the first word problems ever that don’t make me break out in a flop sweat!

  8. I got all the answers right except numbers 3 and 6, which I gave up on. For number 3, I was going to write out all the conversations, but realized it would take too long and that there must be a more efficient way. Number 6 I had no clue. I was a women’s studies major. These were fun, though!

    • I’ll be honest — I initially solved #3 by making a spreadsheet. It’s been a long time since I’ve thought about permutations and combinations.

  9. I loved this! Though tbh, My initial answer to #3 was “the limit does not exist” until I reread the question =.=

  10. This is perfect, just what this dyscalculic queermo needs to properly wrap my head around abstract mathematical concepts! Maybe in the future there could be some for statistics–I’m thinking a bell hooks-themed bell curve, maybe some her-stograms? Okay, okay, I’ll stop.

  11. This was a lot of fun! Word problems rank right up there with logic puzzles for me as a favorite pass time.

    As an alternate answer to #5, I might suggest that Kayla stop being invited to brunch.

    • I appreciate you paying attention to this! I would have loved some dorky cartoon math people that looked like me or other QPOC. Unfortunately our graphics interns weren’t available for this article, and the choices in the pool of stock images we have a license to are limited. The POC inclusive cartoons I found in this style weren’t as relevant to the text. It’s something I’m very aware of while selecting imagery for this column, and I usually get a better spread — just not this week.

  12. I am a tiny maths-loving nerd to that absolutely made my evening. I really want to bribe the teaching students I know to try these on classes!

  13. Thank you, Laura! This was the best! I got all except for number 3. I forgot how to do the math for that type of problem. I love love love word problems like number 5. They were my all time fave in the Puzzlemania books. Does anyone else remember those? They were awesome. I’d love to see this more often on Autostraddle. It’s super creative, fun, and gets our brains working. Thanks :)

  14. Laura, this is such a wonderful , and surprise! post. Thank you for being so creative.
    Here is a problem I faced as a high school math teacher: “Teena, you are totally smart enough to do these math problems if you just put in the effort.” Teena said, ” Oh, I just can’t learn math. My mother said she was not good at math either!”
    Does anyone know what the solution to this problem is? Sigh.

      • It made me so sad to think that her mom just “ok’d” her to not try and be successful. You and I know girls need encouragement and support in our chauvinistic society!

  15. These word problems are too easy. Quit playing games with my heart Autostraddle. :(

    • Ah…..problems too easy? Here is a theorem to prove, if you can:

      Every even number ( like 2, 4, ……452,…. ) can be written as a sum of two prime numbers ( 8= 5 + 3, …or 52 =29+ 23, ….). In math terms: If n is an even integer, there exists two prime integers p, q such that n= p+q. ( prime integer is evenly divisible by only itself and 1).

      This is assumed to be true, but is as yet unproven. Good luck!

    • Haha. Maybe I’ll do a round 2 with harder problems. I like it when everyone is able to participate, though!

      • Warning about the “tough” problem I posted! It is called Goldbach’s Conjecture , proposed around 1750.

        If you solve it, you will be a famous MathMagianWoman!! And probably write your own ticket in the math world.

        I love the simplicity of the theorem ….anyone in math can understand the proposal, and work on it, so it tends to entice one to give it a “go”.

        I have attempted to use the “proof by contradiction” approach, where you assume there is a least even number that cannot be written as a sum of two primes, and show that that assumption leads to a contradition of something you know is true.

        And that would prove the original theorem by “logical equivalence”.?
        Did anyone just fall asleep? Or roll your eyes? ?

        • I didn’t realise this was Goldbachs conjecture! Which I’ve heard of, but I had no idea was so simple to understand. I might have a proper sit down with paper and pen tomorrow to think about it. Just to engage the brain a bit again. God I love pure maths.

  16. This is fan-fucking-tastic. One of those articles that my housemates ask me what I’m giggling about. Even better, we’re a maths house!

  17. I would have said three trays of cupcakes, because who doesn’t make a few extra? One needs tasting to make sure they’re done, one is going to be wrecked while being removed from the pan, a couple might get consumed during party setup…

  18. How did I not discover this until today? This is the best! I wish I had remembered to solve #3 using factorials, because factorials are always so excited and I imagine them in the voice of the count from sesame street. 6! Ah ah ah!

  19. So these got me laughing so hard and also gave my brain some much needed exercise! Thank you very much for both! (and for reminding me of the importance of the latter!)

  20. So these got me laughing so hard and also gave my brain some much needed exercise! Thank you very much for both! (and for reminding me of the importance of the latter!)

  21. I’ve come back to this article because it’s awesome. But now I’m worried whether Rachel counted herself as one of the 12 book club members. I dont want Rachel missing out on cake.

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