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Science

Professor Lynn Conway

Professor Lynn Conway

Prof. of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science, Emerita,
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

www.lynnconway.com

If you use virtually any sort of microelectronic technology in your daily life then you owe an immense debt to engineer and latter day trans campaigner, Lynn Conway.

Lynn is Emerita Professor of Electrical  Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Michigan and, whilst working at the famous Xerox “PARC” centre in the mid 1970’s, made a pivotal contribution to the way in which large and complex computer chips are designed. The techniques she invented with her colleague, Professor Carver Mead, meant that more engineers were able to design more computer chips in a fraction of the time it had taken before – her methods are still taught to University students around the world – and the paradigms she gave the engineering world have influenced the design of everything from desktop computers and personal organisers to toasters.

Yet even before this seminal contribution, Lynn had already contributed enormously to the product design strategy of IBM – with ideas that also changed the way that very fast computers are built. Chances are, in fact, your desktop PC uses those ideas even today – allowing it to carry out several instructions at the same time, rather than one after the other.

Despite Conway’s obvious intellectual talents, however, that relationship with IBM was soon to come off the rails. The inventor whose talent was to think “outside of the box” was about to come out of the closet too. Till this point her employers had known Lynn as a male – the identity she had been assigned and struggled with since birth. It was an identity which she couldn’t live with. Unfortunately, neither could IBM “live with” the alternative.

“ When I explained to IBM in 1968 that I was undergoing a ‘change of sex’, they just couldn’t deal with it. I lost my employment, right when I needed it most.”

In fairness to IBM, it is doubtful that Lynn would have found a better reception anywhere else – so long as people in those days were aware of her transsexuality. Regardless of talent the universal assumption was that it was absolutely out of the question to even contemplate employing “someone like that”.

One of Lynn’s US contemporaries described to me her own experience of violating this most fundamental of society’s taboos in the early 1970’s:

“ I was raped, fired, beaten, ostracized from family and subjected to about every kind of discrimination you can think of. It didn't matter how good I was at anything – that was all to no avail when employers learned of my condition. My first company fired me two months from my surgery date, the second fired me a month later. At the third I worked on classified defense technology before they fired me too – and said outright that it was because I was transsexual.   By 1981 I was beaten down to the point where I was walking the streets, scraping for survival, living in my car, and flipping hamburgers for survival in a roach infested joint.”

For Lynn, the ten years following her expulsion from IBM are an inspiring tale of gritty determination – from riches to rags and back to riches again. She was fortunate in having already met the pioneering physician Harry Benjamin, shortly after he had published his seminal textbook “ The Transsexual Phenomenon” in 1966. With Benjamin’s help she had already begun the lengthy process of transforming her body and used the savings she had to go abroad for the surgery to complete the process. Returning to America with a new name and identity she started again from the very beginning – as a humble contract programmer – and grew a new career on the basis of her sheer talent.

Many transsexual people become more energetic and creative following their treatment in fact and, within five years, Conway had established enough of a reputation in her own right to be offered a job by an exciting new research venture which had just been started by Xerox. The Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC) was a hothouse of talented designers; practically every aspect of modern desktop computing – the computer mouse, windows, icons, menus and more – was invented there. Conway flourished and, within five years, had published her classic textbook on microchip design and was teaching at the world-famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Nobody knew of Lynn’s past life or of the pioneering work she had also done at IBM. To “own” her past would have meant risking everything she had rebuilt. It is only quite recently that Lynn’s story has emerged and she is able to take the credit for both the contributions she has made to the development of Information Technology as we know it..

Stories like Lynn’s aren’t often reported though – not because they are necessarily rare but because the people concerned know first hand what exposure can mean. And even though campaigners like myself can vouch from first hand experience that the world has changed greatly in the 35 years since Lynn got fired, it is hardly surprising that people who have lost everything are wary of putting that assertion to the test. Would you?

The connection between Lynn and her past finally came to light voluntarily in 1999, when she realised that researchers and historians documenting the early history of computer developments were starting to show an interest in the work done in her former identity at IBM. Facing a difficult choice after 31 years in her current identity, she began a slow and careful process of coming out, so that her story could be told and understood in her own words.

Complementary articles followed in science and engineering journals, and in the mainstream too. Gradually Lynn found that other transsexual people were seeking her out as a role model and source of advice. Her website evolved from a self-explanatory biography into a major international resource with her own brand of advice and guidance on the background to being a transsexual person and how to succeed on the road to transition. Parts have been translated into most of the world's major languages, taking her work into countries where trans people most certainly exist but have few organisational resources of their own. Though now ostensibly retired, Lynn's public role has now evolved and developed again, addressing some of the challenges faced by trans people in contemporary US society. For more details see her own more detailed biographical background at :

http://ai.eecs.umich.edu/people/conway/BioSketch.html

Lynn is not unique as a high achieving trans person in the scientific field. In reality there are many "Lynn Conways" tucked away quietly in companies and academic institutions, making major contributions towards business and our society. Most prefer to do what Lynn did for over 30 years and to keep their trans background a secret. No-one can blame them for that, because history teaches that those who "come out" without good reason could (even today) be gambling their status and careers.

We may never know the full extent to which society owes gratitude to the talents of LGBT people of all kinds. We therefore rely on the examples of exceptional contributors like Lynn Conway to give us a strong hint.

Christine Burns

For a related article, exploring why it is important for employers to be able to embrace workforce diversity in every sense, see this PDF document

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