Lynn Conway: Innovator and Social Reformer

LGBT activism takes many different forms. Some people feel that taking to the front lines of the fight is the right way to go. You can do this by participating in pride parades, picketing, protesting, or simply injecting your lifestyle into the lives of other people. Others feel that simply existing and living your life peacefully and “normally” is the right way to represent the LGBT community to the rest of the world. While both methodologies are effective in their own way, there are some communities where only one of them will get down to the core of the opponents and change their mind.

As most of us are aware, LGBT rights and acceptance has come a long way since 20, 30, or 40 years ago. Today, while it is still technically legal to be fired for being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered, it is much more frowned upon and a less frequent practice than it was many years ago. This is, perhaps, one of the greatest testaments to the LGBT rights movement. When you give people jobs you give them responsibility, money, power, and influence- no matter how small it may be. You also allow that LGBT person to remain in an environment where there may not be a lot of LGBT people. This forces others to talk about the topic, and to eventually become accustomed to it. This is especially impactful in a field that generally keeps to itself and doesn’t pay much attention to the personal side of life.

Lynn Conway is a transgendered woman, but also an activist and a highly regarded computer scientist and electrical engineer. The field of engineering is very much dominated by males, specifically those that are straight. Engineers are not a discriminatory group of people, but these types of topics do not come up easily at work. When working on a project, the focus is very much on task and does not leave much room for conversation otherwise. Areas of study such as literature or art often revolve around the human experience. For example, theatre has a lot of “out and proud” LGBT people. This is likely because their jobs require them to dig deep into themselves emotionally, and express that to an audience of people. These types of events present themselves easily as gateways to personal discussion and, consequently, personal development.

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A notable example in media is the film Bad Education. I don’t want to call attention to the plot as much as I do the sexual orientation of one of the main characters, Enrique. Towards the beginning of the film, we learn he is gay. The main reason for this is that his old lover, believed to be Ignacio, comes to him with a film proposal. The film outlines everything that has happened to Ignacio, from being sexually abused in school to eventually discovering his true sexual orientation. I would argue that we would have never learned Enrique’s sexual orientation if the movie was about his career as a computer scientist. Instead, we would have been focused on new technologies or devices he was developing. But, we entered the realm of the arts. The environment fostered and promoted this type of personal discovery and advancement. Juan came to Enrique to get his brother’s story out in the open. I find it unlikely that Juan would have went to Enrique so he could write a computer program for his deceased brother. Theatre and arts form a bond between the working world and the personal life, whereas technological industry cements the separation.

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Back in the 1960’s, IBM was a computer and technology giant. They were the backbone of virtually all computing advancements at the time. Lynn Conway played an instrumental role in all of this when she invented Dynamic Instruction Scheduling (DIS). DIS enabled computers to issue many out-of-order instructions at the same time. This was so groundbreaking, in fact, that companies began using this innovation all across the industry to make computers smaller and more powerful than before. However, no one knew that it was Conway who developed this technology. They didn’t know it was Lynn because IBM fired her when she announced her intentions to transition. This forced her to restart her career with a blank slate at the bottom of the ladder- only this time, she did it as a woman. Without anyone knowing about her past as a man, she became a woman engineering icon and a prized computer systems architect.

Representative Brian Sims has a theory that conversation about LGBT topics creates a net acceptance of LGBT people- whether that conversation be good or bad. By being a pioneer in engineering and a transgendered woman, Lynn Conway paved the way for discussion about LGBT people in her work culture. Now, an incredibly intelligent and respected computer scientist and engineer is not only an innovator, but also happens to be a transgendered woman. To contrast Lynn’s experience to today, major tech companies are now some of the best places to work if you’re part of the LGBT community. Companies like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft all include sexual orientation in their acceptance policies, even though they aren’t required to. It is people like Lynn Conway that generate discussions that lead to acceptance of all people in in all areas of work- not just theatre and the arts.

Brokeback Mountain

Brokeback Mountain is a critically acclaimed and extremely popular queer romance/drama movie. The film was directed by Ang Lee, under the production company River Road Entertainment in 2005. It was nominated for 8 Academy Awards and received three of them: Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Score. It is based off of a book by an American author by Annie Proulx.

Despite being so successful, the movie was not without its fair share of public outcry and controversy. After all, it depicted a gay male relationship. A relationship with two men is not necessarily part of the “normative” culture that our world fostered back in 2005 and still does today. As a result, it faced many challenges including theatre cancellations, media criticism, and overall denouncement from various organizations. For example, it was pulled from a theatre in Utah despite having been contracted to premier there. In addition, the conservative media attacked Hollywood for pushing a “gay agenda”. This bad press caused sales to decrease dramatically over the course of the week. However, the movie prevailed and is still revered as a great production of its time that sheds light on an otherwise darkened subject matter.

Brokeback Mountain begins with the two main characters, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) looking for a job for the summer. They both arrive at the same trailer of a man who owns a large herd of sheep. In past seasons, there has been an issue where wolves were hunting and killing the sheep. So, he wants the two men to camp out on Brokeback Mountain together to scare off any wolves that come close to the herd.

At this point, we only get some minor hints they Jack may be gay. While Ennis is standing outside, Jack stares at him through the side-view mirror of his truck. The stare lingers and his eyes have a certain intensity that hints at sexual desire. If Ennis had returned the stare, it would have been very similar to those in Cruising. This means we aren’t at an intense point of mutual attraction yet, but there is a hint that it is evolving. It serves as an effective foreshadowing into the coming relationship between the two men.

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Once they get to the mountain, they set up camp and begin their daily and nightly duties. The usual arrangement is that one person holds down camp at night, and the other rides out to the sheep to guard them. However, they decide that both of them will stay at the camp for one night. Ennis starts by sleeping outside, with Jack inside the tent. It is very cold, and Jack tells Ennis to sleep with him inside the tent. In a matter of minutes, they begin kissing, and eventually they begin to have sex. This kiss was initiated by an intense stare. It was a stare that told both parties that they were interested, a form of communication without a single word. This is exactly the kind that the main character in cruising used to attract the killer, another man with which to have sexual relations with. It is marked by eye contact, small facial movements, and bodily gestures.

Now, we see the first truly mutual sign of affection between the two main characters. This confirms our thoughts from the beginning, and thus starts the emotional and sexual relationship between Ennis and Jack.

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As the story continues, they move on past working on the mountain and get families of their own. They both marry women and have kids and live seemingly normal lives. That is, until Jack makes contact with Ennis again by means of a postcard. This sparks their relationship and they begin to see each other, with the intention of hiding it from their wives. Ennis’ wife sees them immediately when they are kissing for the first time after not seeing each other. Afterwards, they continue to meet on Brokeback Mountain multiple times throughout the year to have sex and spend time with each other. This creates a downward spiral for Ennis’ normative life, and eventually ends in divorce.

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This is a parallel that can be drawn to the lives of many gay men today. Due to the pressures of society, many feel that they must marry someone of the opposite gender. This forces them to suppress their true feelings and it eventually manifests into lies, secret relationships, and a great deal of unhappiness. If society were to release some of this pressure, perhaps Ennis and Jack could have lived their lives together from the beginning. The pressure isn’t only present in the movie, but it was also present on the movie when the various critics were denouncing the contents saying they would threaten the normative American family.

Divorce is not the only thing that plagues the lives of Jack and Ennis throughout the movie. It is suggested that Jack’s community found out about his homosexuality. Not long after their last visit, Ennis finds out that Jack has been killed. Jack’s wife lies to Ennis about how it happened, saying it was an accident while fixing a tractor. Then, the scene flashes to images of Jack getting beaten and slashed.

Unfortunately, this is a stark reality for a lot gay people in the world today. Many people get beaten, bullied, or worse by their peers simply for having feelings for the same sex.

Brokeback Mountain is a keynote movie in queer culture. It showcases not only the social struggle of queer relationships and ideas, but also the lesser known details of the lifestyle. Their interest in each other revealed itself only when they shared glances, just as those in Cruising right before two men would get together to have sex. And after exchanging these signs of affection, they immediately delved into sexual acts, very similar to the gay bars in Cruising. As a result, Brokeback Mountain teaches us a lot about the social restrictions that surround being gay, while paralleling itself to other productions that have less to do with the social aspects and more about the sexual culture.

 

Orange Is The New Black

A critically acclaimed Netflix Original Series, Orange Is The New Black breaks down the walls of the prison and reveals a fascinating cultural dynamic. The series was produced by Tilted Productions in association with Lionsgate Television. It is based on a memoir by Piper Kerman, “Orange Is The New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison”. The memoir is Piper’s personal account of her experiences in prison, and her story very closely matches that of Piper in the TV series.

OITNB has received 12 Primetime Emmy Award Nominations. It started out as a 2-series hit, and has now been cleared for third. It all began with Piper Chapman, the main character, being convicted of drug trafficking. She is sentenced to a year in a women’s prison, and this is where we begin to see an entirely different world of competition, status quo, and pseudo-economy. Intertwined in all of these prison-specific events, is an outright takeover of lesbianism. Many of the inmates are lesbians to begin with, but some simply start joining the fun when they realize there are no males to have sexual relations with. Lesbianism is not the only part of queer culture at Litchfield, however. Sophia Burset is a transgender woman serving her sentence at the jail. She encounters additional struggles as she lives day-to-day, while remembering the events that landed her there in the first place. In the episode “Lesbian Request Denied”, we learn a lot about Sophia and where she comes from.

Throughout the episode, we get flashbacks of Sophia’s life before entering prison. She was a father and a husband going through a difficult transition while trying to maintain her relationships. After getting married, Sophia began going through emotional turmoil as she was fully realizing her true identity. In order to undergo transition, she used stolen credit cards to pay for her surgery and hormones. All the while, her wife and child had no idea that she was stealing money. In fact, Sophia is supported and embraced by her wife, Crystal, during the transition. Crystal even promises to teach her everything she knows about being a woman. This is all to keep the family together.

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“Better my kid have two moms than a dead dad, right?”

-Crystal

Things take a turn for the worst when the cops show up at the door to arrest Sophia. Crystal is completely surprised and taken aback from what is going on. She had shown a large amount of support and love for Sophia to keep her family together, and now it is being torn apart. Sophia’s relationship with her son is already in shambles because he is embarrassed by the transition. But now, he must watch his father (now second mom) get taken away by the cops. This affects him so much that he refuses to ever visit Sophia in jail.

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Sophia’s life is a complicated one. She lived a long time and established a life as a man, and eventually decided to make a full transition. This put strain on her relationship with her son, and even put some doubt in Crystal’s mind.

“I’m fine with the rest of it: the hair, the makeup, I’ll teach you all of it. You’ll be a pro. Just please keep your penis.”

-Crystal

The drive to be a woman pushed her so far as to use stolen credit cards, and eventually end up in jail. This sends a message about how strong the feelings of transgender people really are. Sophia felt trapped in her own body, and she made it her first priority to do something about it. Even with the proper support from someone she loved, she still felt the need to do illegal things to become what she felt she needed to be. While this certainly isn’t the best course of action to take in this situation, it was a reality for Sophia because she believed she had no other way to go.

The actions of Sophia can be paralleled to those of Ignacio in Bad Education. Ignacio was born a boy, and later went through a transition to live life as a woman. Throughout the movie, she is seen steeling and blackmailing for money. Father Monolo sexually victimized Ignacio when she was a child. In return, Ignacio blackmailed him later in life for money for sex reassignment surgery. Like Sophia’s decision to use stolen credit cards, this is a highly dangerous and illegal thing to do, and ultimately led to a tragic consequence- Ignacio’s death.

While in prison, Sophia receives criticism, unwanted sexual advances, and even complications with obtaining her hormone medication. At one point, she is completely taken off of her medication. This frightens her greatly because she didn’t want all of her losses in life to be for nothing. She did the things she did to be a woman and she doesn’t want it taken from her. She pulls some strings and eventually receives her hormones. Regardless of her struggles, in most of her interactions with other inmates, Sophia is very confident with herself and how she lives her life. She establishes herself as the prison hairdresser, and is generally well-liked and appreciated. Even though she’s in prison, Sophia seems happier that she can finally be herself.

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If Orange Is The New Black sounds interesting to you, you can check it out exclusively on Netflix.