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.