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Hidden Heroes: Lynn Conway

Charles Rogers, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

Lynn Conway excelled in math and science courses and began her studies at MIT in 1955. Assigned male at birth, Lynn suffered from gender dysphoria. Due to a failed gender-affirming treatment while at MIT, she dropped out of college. She worked as an electronic technician until she decided to return to college, this time at Columbia University.

After completing her Bachelors and Masters degrees, she took a position with IBM. She became a member of the team working on advanced computing systems. Their work provided the architecture for many of today’s high-performance microprocessors.

While working at IBM, Lynn learned of advances in gender-affirming surgery and she underwent successful treatment in 1968. At the time, Lynn was married and had two children. After her transition, she was legally denied parental access to her children. She was also fired by IBM. Fifty-two years later, IBM apologized for her firing.

It’s at that point that Lynn took her current name and resumed her career in what she would call “stealth mode.” During her career, she pioneered the development of a number of computer design innovations making chip design and production more efficient. Her work subsequently led to a number of technology startups.

Later in Lynn’s career in the 1990s, she began to be more open about her transgender status. She created a website with information for transgender individuals. She also became an advocate for transgender rights. In addition to her many honors in the field of computer design, she has also been honored for her work advocating for transgender rights.

You have to wonder how many success stories like Lynn’s it will take for our society to fully accept trans and gender nonconforming individuals for who they are. As a country, we still haven’t accepted transgender rights in many areas (e.g., the right to compete in sports based upon their self-determined gender identity). In many parts of the country we are suffering a backlash against the prospect for trans individuals’ equal rights to participate fully in our society.

Just imagine what progress we can make in accepting individuals in their self-determined gender identity. Just imagine that we eliminated discrimination against trans and gender nonconforming individuals. It seems unbelievable that one of our leading corporations would take more than 50 years to apologize to a person for simply wanting to undergo gender transition. What will it take for us to become a more perfect union that fully accepts transgender individuals as full and equal participants in our society?

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“From the 1970’s to 1999, I was recognized as breaking the gender barrier in the computer science field as a woman, but in 2000 it became the transgender barrier I was breaking.” – Lynn Conway