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Lynn Conway, pioneering transgender computer scientist and activist, dies at 86

Lynn Conway renowned computer scientist trans activist died 86
(portrait) via University of Michigan, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department, (background) Shutterstock Creative

Conway was fired by IBM in 1968 for transitioning, but she went on to make major advances in her field, such as revolutionizing the chip design process.

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Lynn Conway, a distinguished computer scientist who was fired by IBM in 1968 for being transgender, has died at age 86.

Conway died Sunday at her home in Jackson, Mich., of a heart condition, her husband, Charles Rogers, told the Los Angeles Times.

“Lynn Conway was the bravest person I ever knew,” Michael Hiltzik wrote in the Times. He met Conway in the 1990s while researching his book Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age, and in 2000, when she went public about her transgender status, he chronicled her life in a Los Angeles Times Magazine cover story.

Conway grew up in Westchester County, N.Y., and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Columbia University in the early 1960s after flunking out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Between MIT and Columbia, Conway spent time “living on the fringes of the gay community” in San Francisco, Hiltzik wrote. But Conway identified not as a gay man but as a woman.

After graduating from Columbia, Conway went to work on a secret project for IBM, which was seeking to develop the world’s fastest supercomputer. At the time, Conway was still trying to live as a man, and married a woman and had two daughters. But the effort was difficult, and in 1968, Conway decided to undergo gender-confirmation surgery, having contacted the office of Dr. Harry Benjamin, a pioneer in such care. At first, the company was supportive, but its leaders eventually decided they couldn’t have a trans employee, and Conway was fired. IBM issued an apology in 2020.

Speaking to Hiltzik that year, she was “philosophical and nonjudgmental” about IBM’s action. “Christine Jorgensen was the last time anything had come out about stuff like this,” she said, referring to the trans trailblazer from the 1950s. IBM President T.J. Watson Jr. “was thinking there would be endless publicity, and I can understand that,” she said.

Conway had hoped to end her marriage quietly, but the circumstances made that impossible. Her ex-wife denied her access to her daughters for 14 years.

She restarted her career, however, without letting anyone but a select few, including human resources directors and handlers of security clearances, know she was not a cisgender woman. In 1973, she was recruited by the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, where she led research on new methods for computer chip design. Her work led to a “revolution in microchip design and manufacturing,” said John L. Anderson, president of the National Academy of Engineering, as quoted by Forbes in 2020.

In 1983, she joined the Department of Defense to conduct research into machine intelligence technology, “sailing through her FBI background check so easily that she became convinced that the Pentagon must have already encountered transgender people in its workforce,” Hiltzik noted. She received an award from Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger for her work.

In 1985, she became a professor of computer science and electrical engineering and associate dean of the engineering school at the University of Michigan. During her tenure, the school became “one of the foremost in the nation,” according to Forbes. She retired in 1999.

“My field would not exist without Lynn Conway,” Valeria Bertacco, the Mary Lou Dorf Collegiate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering and vice provost for engaged learning at the university, said in an obit on the engineering school’s website. “Chips used to be designed by drawing them with paper and pencil like an architect’s blueprints in the pre-digital era. Conway’s work developed algorithms that enabled our field to use software to arrange millions, and later billions, of transistors on a chip.”

After going public with her trans status in Hiltzik’s 2000 article, she became an activist. “From the 1970s 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,” she told Forbes. She was named a trans hero by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (now the National LGBTQ Task Force) in 2009, and Time honored her in 2014 as one of the most influential LGBTQ+ people in the U.S.

Survivors include her husband, Rogers; they met in 1987 and married in 2002. He was, like her, an engineer and an outdoor-sports enthusiast. They had “a shared passion for white-water canoeing, motocross racing and other adventures,” Hiltzik reported. Services will be held June 21 and 22 in Grass Lake, Mich.

“Lynn Conway faced more challenges in her life than most of us can contemplate,” Hiltzik concluded. “She should be remembered as someone who, to paraphrase William Faulkner, not only faced them, but prevailed over them. And in doing so she enriched us all.”

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Trudy Ring

Trudy Ring is The Advocate’s senior politics editor and copy chief. She has been a reporter and editor for daily newspapers and LGBTQ+ weeklies/monthlies, trade magazines, and reference books. She is a political junkie who thinks even the wonkiest details are fascinating, and she always loves to see political candidates who are groundbreaking in some way. She enjoys writing about other topics as well, including religion (she’s interested in what people believe and why), literature, theater, and film. Trudy is a proud “old movie weirdo” and loves the Hollywood films of the 1930s and ’40s above all others. Other interests include classic rock music (Bruce Springsteen rules!) and history. Oh, and she was a Jeopardy! contestant back in 1998 and won two games. Not up there with Amy Schneider, but Trudy still takes pride in this achievement.
Trudy Ring is The Advocate’s senior politics editor and copy chief. She has been a reporter and editor for daily newspapers and LGBTQ+ weeklies/monthlies, trade magazines, and reference books. She is a political junkie who thinks even the wonkiest details are fascinating, and she always loves to see political candidates who are groundbreaking in some way. She enjoys writing about other topics as well, including religion (she’s interested in what people believe and why), literature, theater, and film. Trudy is a proud “old movie weirdo” and loves the Hollywood films of the 1930s and ’40s above all others. Other interests include classic rock music (Bruce Springsteen rules!) and history. Oh, and she was a Jeopardy! contestant back in 1998 and won two games. Not up there with Amy Schneider, but Trudy still takes pride in this achievement.