Lynn Conway
December 10, 2000 11:11 AM   Subscribe

Lynn Conway is one of the major talents in the history of the development of computers, responsible for major advances without which computers we buy now would be much different. She's also a transsexual, born physically male. While working for IBM she had her sex-change operation, and IBM immediately fired her for it.
posted by Steven Den Beste (7 comments total)
Lynn's one of my colleagues here at Michigan, and I had no clue about this before she sent us an email alerting everyone to the Scientific American story. Now, of course, everyone's saying, oh yes, we knew about Lynn, but I'm pretty sure I heard the sound of a lot of jaws dropping that night.

Without taking anything away from her accomplishments, I think SciAm is overhyping them a bit--the story just plays better if she was a neglected, pioneering genius than if she was simply another toiler in the vineyard. Nevertheless, it's a hell of a story. A must-read, as Jorn would say.
posted by rodii at 12:09 PM on December 10, 2000

Perhaps my reading comprehension is lacking, but I fail to see where there's any proof that IBM fired her over having a sex-change operation. Perhaps someone could provide a citation.
posted by milnak at 12:57 PM on December 10, 2000

"Proof"? Is there some reason to doubt it? Somehow I don't think IBM is going to admit it, even at this late date. All we have is Conway's testimony, and that of her cow orkers, but it's pretty trustworthy. She's never tried to "get back" at IBM for any of this, and I see no reason to doubt her motives. IBM at the time had a very staid culture, and Conway was one of the first transsexuals in the US. You could get fired for much less fringey behavior then; it would have been remarkable had IBM not fired her.

IBM's haste to get rid of her is in fact a big part of the story. They wanted her out so badly that they never asked for her papers--very un-IBMlike behavior. Years later, when most of the records of "Project Y" had disappeared and the project team had dispersed, those papers constituted pretty much the only extant documentation for the project.

(By the way, there was an article about Conway in the Nov. 19 LA Times Sunday supplement. It's not available online, but Conway has a PDF version [Download] on her site. It's goes into a lot more detail about the personal side of the whole story, including some corroboration about IBM. She wanted to move to a new division under her new name, but IBM wasn't confident she keep it secret, and feared morale problems among her colleagues if she was allowed to stay.)
posted by rodii at 1:52 PM on December 10, 2000

This is simply an incredible story. Her tenacity is amazing. Bravo!
posted by jmcnally at 7:56 AM on December 11, 2000

I work at an IBM facility, and ironically enough, we have right now in our lobby a display thingie that shows pictures and stories of lesbian, bi, gay, and transgendered IBM-ers with their children. This is a traveling exhibition making its rounds among the various buildings at this (very huge) IBM site, and it's entitled "Love Makes a Family".

The idea is to hammer into our heads that we need to be diverse and value everyone's assorted family shape, whatever that shape might be.

I totally agree and think it's so obvious it doesn't need to be said, and that this little mobile propaganda thing is only going to make things worse. The heavy-handed presentation would make people doubt *anything* that it was trying to promote, even if it were something as obvious as "2 + 2 = 4".

But I admire the effort, anyway. So the point is that IBM seems to have come a long way since this sordid episode. How long ago was it that she was fired?
posted by beth at 3:37 PM on December 11, 2000

About thirty years and a social revolution ago.
posted by dhartung at 4:02 PM on December 11, 2000

Just a little clipping from the PDF I mentioned above, for those who didn't follow it:

. . . But problems surfaced immediately. At work, his supervisor, an engineer named Don Rozenberg, recognized instinctively that IBM possessed exactly the wrong culture to indulge Robert’s unprecedented proposal. "It was still white shirts, blue serge suits and wingtip shoes," Rozenberg says. "This simply wasn’t the IBM image."

Indeed, IBM corporate management, unable to see how Robert could keep his past secret from his co-workers, feared disruption. "The decision was made," Rozenberg recalls, "to quietly move him out of the company. . . ."

From our "modern, enlightened" perspective it might be easy to accuse IBM of ll kinds of moral offenses, but to me, this sounds like, if anything, timidity. I wouldn't even call it cowardice, since it must have been a totally unprecedented situation for the bosses. Who would know how to react in such a situation?

There are still lots of places where the reaction would be a lot more, uh, urgent. I was out in Iowa a couple years ago (no slight on Iowa intended--coulda been anywhere) and saw a bumper sticker that said "help stop AIDS--kill a faggot." The fact that someone could publically display that without shame in the 90s still astonishes me. Imagine what a leap of faith it would have taken to do something as radical as a sex change in the 60s.

posted by rodii at 7:11 PM on December 11, 2000

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