Transgender Day of Visibility: The achievements of Lynn Conway
For International Transgender Day of Visibility, we thought of taking a look at the achievements of Lynn Conway, computer engineer and transgender activist.
Despite facing ostracism and stigmatization, Lynn recreated herself after making the transition and lived a life in “stealth mode” before coming out.
Lynn Conway: The computer engineer
Born in 1938, Conway grew up with gender dysphoria as a child in a time when transsexualism was a taboo subject. She entered MIT in 1955 but left after a failed attempt at transitioning in 1957.
“I had been a very shy, withdrawn, unhappy person while I was forced to live as a male,” Conway said.
She later earned BS and MSEE degrees in 1962 and 1963 at Columbia University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science.
While doing pioneering research at the IBM in the 1960s, she invented a method in 1965 that made possible the creation of a superscalar computer and helped in its design.
Her invention, called dynamic instruction scheduling (DIS), was later used in the new PC chips and made them powerful.
Lynn Conway: Transition and a new life
In 1966, already feeling suicidal, she made contact with physician Harry Benjamin, who published a book called The Transsexual Phenomenon, which described and gave medical solutions for Conway’s misgendering.
“I wouldn’t have survived another two years in the life I was living,” she related.
With the doctor’s help, she began medical treatments in 1967 and underwent hormonal and surgical sex reassignment in 1968.
Unfortunately, she was fired by IBM for being a transsexual before that. As she lost her career and her professional support, she also lost her family, relatives, and friends during that time.
She made the transition on her own, going abroad for her surgery. Afterward, she came home and took on her new name. What’s more, she started her career all over again as a programmer.
Lynn Conway: New achievemenets
As Lynn Conway, she made a name for herself such that by 1978, she gained international fame in her field of VLSI innovations as she wrote a seminal textbook on the subject and began teaching at MIT on the prototype course.
“I was five years post-op, and I had become such a happy person and so full of life that I was able to emerge as a research leader. I was reacted to as a very creative, enthusiastic, wildly energetic gal who got all sorts of creative ideas and who was fun to work with,” she said.
But despite her successes and her new marriage to her husband Charlie in 1987, she lived her life in “stealth mode” with only close friends knowing her past.
It was only 1999, when computer historians discovered her past and everything came out. However, Lynn realized that the times had changed and she didn’t have to be afraid of being “out.”
That was when she thought that her story could help other transsexual women who faced the same ostracism and stigmatization.
““When I made the decision to have a gender-correction, everybody told me I was terrible, I was going to end up dead or in an asylum someplace. But they were wrong. I’ve had a great life, I’m very happy, and I’ve managed to do some productive, important work,” she said.