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success stories

success stories


Varying degrees of "stealth" have allowed many transgender people to be quite successful in spite of the challenges. The 12th and final installment in The Advocate's Transgender 101 series

I might have transitioned sooner to live as a female had there been greater public awareness of transgender people. There has been no shortage of stereotypes and Hollywood images, and none of them ever seemed to fit me. It wasn't until I read Crossing, the autobiography of noted economist and university professor Deirdre McCloskey, that I started to realize that there are transgender people in every walk of life--even mine.

Since then I have learned of lots of transgender success stories, many of which were not widely known because those involved had kept quiet about their transgender status. I'd like to share some of those stories with you. Since my space is limited, I'm going to limit my sharing to stories you probably have not heard. That means I'll only mention people outside of the entertainment industry and whose "day jobs" do not directly involve transgender activism.

One of the more famous success stories in this category is that of computer scientist Lynn Conway. Lynn invented technology while she was at IBM in the 1960s that is used in most computers today--probably including the machine you're using right now. But when Lynn announced her plans to transition from male to female, she was fired. How ironic that seems now, because the IBM of today was the first corporation to add gender identity and expression to its global nondiscrimination policy.

Following her transition in 1968, Lynn chose to live "stealth" to preserve her career prospects. She went on to a distinguished research career, pioneering new methods of computer chip design while working at Xerox's legendary Palo Alto, Calif.., Research Laboratory, and is now professor emerita of engineering at the University of Michigan. She chose to come out as transgender only in 1999, when an author writing on the history of computer science set out to find the person who had developed that technology at IBM.

Since then, Lynn has devoted much time to making information about transgenderism available in as many languages as possible. I probably would not have had the courage to transition if it weren't for her profiles of successful transitioners on

There are other transgender successes in academia. Ben Barres is a popular Professor of Neurobiology at Stanford who recently made the headlines when his article challenging sexist comments made by former Harvard President Lawrence Summers was published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature. My hat is off to Ben. He has seen firsthand, through his transition from female, just how much bias there is facing women who pursue careers in the sciences. I applaud him for speaking out against the bias as a man.

There are transgender successes in everyday politics too. Computer specialist and Air Force veteran Jessica Orsini was recently elected to the Centralia, Mo., board of aldermen. Raytheon Missile Systems chief engineer Amanda Simpson made history as the first openly transgender candidate nominated for state office by a political party. She narrowly missed winning a seat in the Arizona house of representatives in 2004. And retired surgeon Dana Beyer snagged the endorsement of political powerhouses The Victory Fund and Emily's List in her recent bid to be the first transgender member of the Maryland house of delegates.

You can even find successful transgender people among ordained clergy. In 1996 the Reverend Erin Swenson became the first known mainstream Protestant minister to make an open gender transition while remaining in ordained office. She is currently serving at the Morningside Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. And the Reverend Malcolm Himschoot was ordained by the United Church of Christ as an openly transgender man at age 27. He now serves as associate minister at the Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis, a congregation with 1,800 members.

In the corporate world, Melissa Feinmel is one of five transgender pilots flying for American Airlines, Margaret Stumpp manages billions of dollars of investments for Prudential Financial, and Donna Rose is a successful IT consultant whose clients have included Kodak and Dell. All have received leading-edge support from their employers or clients.

There are many more transgender success stories, but you rarely hear of them because of the media's fondness for sensationalized stories and depictions of the downtrodden. You may even have a transgender success story working next to you but don't know it because the person is afraid that being out may cost him or her their job. Hopefully, as transgender awareness increases, the stigma of being transgender will decrease, the laws will improve, and transgender people will feel freer to be out of the closet.

As for me? I'm just the financial controller for a very supportive arts foundation, but the true measure of my success may not come until we see how my memoir sells. Once I finish writing it and find a publisher, of course.

This column marks my last in The Advocate's Transgender 101 series. I can't thank you enough for staying with me through the series in the same way that my late wife Barbara stayed with me through the 30 years of our marriage. Did you find the series worthwhile? Would you like to see The Advocate continue to increase its coverage of transgender people and issues? The magazine's print edition still refers to itself as "the national gay and lesbian newsmagazine," so there may not be room. But if your Letters to the Editor are favorable, perhaps they'll ask me to keep writing!

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