52 years later, IBM apologizes for firing transgender woman

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In August 1968, Lynn Conway, a promising computer engineer at IBM in Sunnyvale, California, was called into the office of Gene Myron Amdahl, then director of advanced computer systems.

Mr Amdahl had been supportive when he learned she was “undergoing a gender transition,” Ms Conway wrote in one account, but the company’s chief executive, Thomas J. Watson Jr., was less tolerant.

On that summer day, Mr. Amdahl had grim news.

“I was fired,” Ms. Conway wrote.

Fifty-two years later, Ms. Conway was called back to speak to IBM’s supervisors. This time, the setting was a virtual meeting attended by other company employees.

They watched last month as Diane Gherson, IBM’s senior vice president of human resources, told Ms Conway that while the company now offers help and support to “employees in transition,” no progress could make up for the loss. treatment she received decades ago.

Ms Conway, 82, went on to receive an award of excellence for her “pioneering work” in the field of computers, said a spokesperson for the company.

“It was so unexpected,” Ms. Conway said in an interview, adding that she remembered fighting back tears. “It was wonderful.”

For gay and transgender scientists and friends of Ms Conway, the apology, albeit belated, was a validation of the work she and other members of the community had contributed to the fields of science and technology. The apology, which was reported by TBEN, came four months after the Supreme Court ruled that a person cannot be fired for being gay or transgender.

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Rochelle Diamond, a California Institute of Technology scientist who is friends with Ms Conway, said she learned of the apology on Friday, the annual Transgender Remembrance Day, which honors the memory of Rita Hester, a transgender woman who has been stabbed. died in 1998.

“It’s important to us,” said Ms. Diamond, who is also the retired President of the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals. “This is another reason we need to remember and remember all the people who have died because they were trans and encourage trans people to be themselves.

Christine Burns, who is friends with Ms Conway, said she never showed bitterness about the way she was fired, but the apology must have felt healing.

“Nothing beats an unequivocal apology for the rationale and closure,” said Ms Burns, a retired UK IT specialist who edited “Trans Britain: Our Journey from the Shadows”.

Ms. Conway was hired by IBM in 1964, immediately after graduating from Columbia University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science.

“It was a golden age in computer research, a time when fundamental breakthroughs were being made on a broad front,” she writes.

Ms Conway was on the verge of such a breakthrough – working on the architecture team of a project centered on creating a computer that would run at full speed – when she began undergoing medical treatments. In early 1968, she told a supervisor that she was “undergoing a gender transition to resolve a terrible existential situation” she had faced from childhood, she writes.

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Her direct superiors wanted her to stay with the company and came up with a plan: She would take time off from IBM, complete her transition and come back as a new employee with a new identity, Ms. Conway said.

But company executives were alarmed, she said. Ms Conway said she later learned that IBM executives feared “outrageous publicity” if her story came out.

The company’s medical director said employees who learned she was transgender “may be suffering from major emotional issues,” Ms. Conway wrote.

After being fired, Ms Conway underwent sex confirmation surgery and began to rebuild her career.

She worked at Memorex in 1971 and in 1973 she was recruited by the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, where she developed methods of designing computer chips that would eventually be used by technology companies around the world.

In 1985, she became professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan. She joined a weekly canoe group where she met her future husband, Charlie, an engineer.

Ms Conway did not publicly disclose that she was transgender until 1999, when she said she learned that computer scientists were researching the project she was involved with at IBM.

It was only a matter of time, she concluded, for someone to find out what had happened.

In 2000, she created a website. Its aim, she writes on the site, was “to illuminate and normalize issues of gender identity and gender transition processes.”

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“I also wanted to tell, in my own words, the story of my gender transition from male to female,” Ms. Conway wrote.

The website, rich in details about her experiences as a computer engineer and as a transgender woman, has become a vital source of information for others in the transgender and gay community at large, Ms. Diamond.

She said of Ms. Conway’s website: “Here I am. I am an accomplished trans woman. Let’s talk about things. How can we help each other? “

In 2005, the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals named Ms. Conway Engineer of the Year for her work in the field of computers and for her public awareness efforts.

Ms Conway said she was never mad at the people who fired her.

“Going back and criticizing, blaming and defaming people, there is a problem with that because it tends to divide people and create angst that cannot be resolved,” she said. “However, you need evidence that there has been serious learning, appreciation and horror of what has happened with today’s Gestalt.”

IBM transgender employees who witnessed the apology said they felt “part of something phenomenal,” said Ella Slade, who is LGBT + and IBM’s world leader and whose pronouns are them. and them.

“Lynn made a comment at one point about joining this IBM event, it was like coming home, and it’s hard not to be choked on hearing that,” they said.

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