LGBTQ+ Tech Innovator: Lynn Conway

August is Pride Month here in Copenhagen. And what better way to celebrate than by shining a spotlight on boundary-breaking LGBTQ+ tech innovators? Our hope is, that by sharing success stories of amazing individuals each week in August, we can help honor milestone achievements within the LGBTQ+ community and help bring attention to those who, too often, fly under the radar.

If you’ve been following along with this mini-series, then you’ll know we’ve already featured tech visionaries Arlan HamiltonAngelica Ross and Peter Arvai — three need-to-know names, all deserving of global recognition.

This week — to round off our Pride Month feature — we’re celebrating the incredible work of computer scientist and transgender activist, Lynn Conway. Lynn’s groundbreaking story is not only inspiring, it’s also a cautionary tale for employers — illustrating in real terms exactly what happens when your workplace lacks the diversity and inclusion needed for all staff to feel accepted.

Here, we delve into Lynn’s early career, achievements in the tech sector, and her success as an LGBTQ+ activist and role model.

Conway’s early education and career

Lynn Conway grew up in White Plains, New York. As a child, Lynn was fascinated with astronomy and excelled in math and science. And in 1955, she entered the esteemed Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Although she was excelling in her academic career, Lynn felt unfulfilled — she’d experienced gender dysphoria as a child, and attempted a gender transition in 1957-1958. Unfortunately, the transition failed — the medical world just wasn’t ready. This disappointment led to her dropping out of MIT.

This was perhaps the first major event in Lynn’s life where her identity as a transgender woman had a serious impact on her career aspirations. But it did not deter her.

Following this, Lynn worked as an electronics technician for several years, before enrolling at Columbia University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science.

In 1964, Lynn — still presenting as a man — began working on the architecture team at IBM Research in New York. While employed by IBM, Lynn made discoveries that are still used in modern computing today. It was undeniable that Lynn was exceptionally talented in her role as a computer scientist — but this all fell apart as a result of LGBTQ+ discrimination.

The possibility of gender transition

Lynn’s inability to present as herself at the time caused her severe depression. It should also be said that not all transgender people feel the need to get surgery in order to transition, but this is something that Lynn felt was necessary in order for her to live authentically.

When she discovered the groundbreaking work of Harry Benjamin, a German-American endocrinologist and sexologist, and realized that genital affirmation surgery was now a real possibility, Lynn began her transition.

But despite Lynn making those brave and important steps to transitioning, her courage was not recognized by her employer.

Unfortunately, like many transgender individuals, Lynn was not supported in the very place she spent most of her time and energy — her workplace.

In 1968, IBM fired Lynn when she revealed her intention to transition.

But, like the previous obstacles that Lynn had already overcome, this did not stop her from continuing to succeed in the tech sector. In fact, what IBM lost, many other employers eventually gained.

Entering “stealth-mode”

Lynn completed her gender transition in 1968.

Knowing that she wanted to continue her career in the technology sector, but being acutely aware of the discrimination she had previously faced as a transgender person, Lynn decided to restart her career in what she referred to as “stealth-mode”.

In the context of gender transition, to be ‘stealth’ means to be perceived as cisgender — ultimately closing a door on the gender assigned at birth.

In extreme cases, transgender people cut off contact with people who knew them before they transitioned — living as though they are a cisgender person. For many, this is a way to avoid the discrimination they would have faced as an openly transgender individual, but it can also be very isolating.

In Lynn Conway’s case, it meant that she could go on to work with a number of high-profile employers and make great advancements in the tech sector — all the while choosing not to reveal her transgender status to colleagues and friends.

Image source: IEEE History Center

Achievements in the tech sector

Over the course of her career, Lynn became one of the technology industry’s most respected computer scientists. She’s been credited with major advancements in the industry, pioneering innovations and leading research at several prestigious organizations, including Xerox, MIT, and the Department of Defense.

And if that wasn’t enough, Lynn was also awarded four honorary doctorate degrees and other recognitions throughout her career.

Lynn’s success, achievements and groundbreaking work as a computer scientist demonstrate her exceptional talent and work ethic. But, despite this, she felt the need to withhold her identity as a transgender person for decades of her working life.

Lynn’s new chapter as a transgender activist: tackling “social invisibility, ignorance and superstitions”

It was only when she learnt that the details of her early work at IBM might soon become public knowledge, that Lynn decided to come out to her friends and colleagues.

She did so in 1999 — and in true pioneering form, as well. Lynn set up a personal website, sharing her story in her own words and providing support to other transgender people facing the same discrimination.

Lynn’s website is a fantastic resource for transgender people struggling with their transition. By way of an introduction, Lynn writes:

“My initial goal for this website was to illuminate and normalize the issues of gender identity and the processes of gender transition. This project began in the year 2000, as I struggled to “come out” about my past to my research colleagues. I wanted to tell in my own words the story of my gender transition from male to female three decades earlier, in 1968, and then of being outed by circumstances 31 years later, in 1999, while living quietly and successfully in ‘stealth mode’.

Since beginning work on this website, I’ve come into contact with ever growing numbers of people concerned with gender issues. I’ve interacted via e-mail and in personal meetings with large numbers of people who are transitioning or who have transitioned. Given the still-remaining social invisibility, ignorance and superstitions about gender conditions, I’ve felt a strong need to provide whatever information, encouragement and hope that I can to help others who are struggling with these issues.”

Image source: Lynn Conway

Lynn has continued her inspiring work as a transgender activist in more recent years, too.

As a result of her own experience, she has campaigned for equal opportunities and employment protections for transgender people in the technology industry. She was also a key figure in campaigning against J. Michael Bailey’s book The Man Who Would Be Queen, accusing Bailey of “conducting intimate research observations on human subjects without telling them that they were objects of the study.”

And she didn’t stop there.

In 2004, Lynn starred in the first full transgender performance of The Vagina Monologues.

Five years later, she was named one of the ‘Stonewall 40 trans heroes’ by the International Court System. More recently, Conway has lobbied the Board of Directors of the Institute of Electrical Engineers for transgender inclusion in the IEEE’s Code of Ethics.

In 2014, just six years ago, that code became fully LGBT inclusive. The same year, Time Magazine named Lynn as one of “21 Transgender People Who Influenced American Culture”.

A leading computer scientist and inspiring advocate for trans rights

Lynn Conway is highly regarded in both the tech industry and the LGBTQ+ community — and it’s not hard to see why.

As for IBM? The company has issued a sincere apology for the way Lynn was treated in 1968, and says they’re now fully LGBTQ+ inclusive. Who knows, however, what Lynn may have been capable of achieving for the business had they not pushed her out.

What do you think of Lynn’s story? Let us know! And while this is the end of our Pride Month series, Dixa promises to keep supporting incredible people — committing to diversity and inclusion within our own organization, but also in the innovators we champion, too.

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