Science & Technology



Lynn Conway, leading computer scientist and transgender pioneer, dies at 86

Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

Lynn Conway was the bravest person I ever knew.

It wasn't merely her struggle to make her way in the male-dominated computer engineering world of the 1960s and 1970s. It was that she did so, with spectacular success, while contending with her own psyche, her family and her bosses at IBM to complete her transgender transition.

Conway died Sunday, according to her husband, Charles Rogers, at home in Jackson, Michigan, of a heart condition.

As I recounted in 2020, I first met Conway when I was working on my 1999 book about Xerox PARC, "Dealers of Lightning," for which she was a uniquely valuable source. In 2000, when she decided to come out as transgender, she allowed me to chronicle her life in a cover story for the Los Angeles Times Magazine titled "Through the Gender Labyrinth."

That article traced her journey from childhood as a male in New York's strait-laced Westchester County to her decision to transition. Years of emotional and psychological turmoil followed, even as he excelled in academic studies.

He won admission to MIT, but flunked out due to a lack of social or medical support. What would have been Conway's MIT graduation day found Conway in San Francisco, living on the fringes of the gay community, searching for how to fit in as a male. But he did not see himself as a gay man attracted to other men, but as a woman attracted to other men.


In 1961 he enrolled at Columbia University, acquiring bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering in only two years. That led to a position on a team at IBM secretly designing the world's fastest supercomputer, a pet project of IBM President Thomas Watson Jr. Conway moved with the team to Menlo Park, Calif., in the years before the surrounding landscape was dubbed Silicon Valley.

By then Conway had gotten married and was raising two daughters. But family life intensified his inner turmoil, and in 1968 he decided to undertake gender reassignment surgery.

As I wrote in 2000, Conway had visualized a nearly seamless transition. IBM was supportive, at least at first. It was willing to change the name on company records and execute a transfer to another lab, giving the employee henceforth known as Lynn Conway a fresh start.

But even as the $4,000 operation was still in the planning stage, it became clear that IBM executives could not understand how a transgender employee could fit into a corporate culture that was "still white shirt, blue serge suits and wingtip shoes," as Conway's IBM supervisor told me. "This simply wasn't the IBM image." The company fired him.


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