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 Hamilton, Angelica 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.
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.