52 Years Later, IBM Apologizes for Firing Transgender Girl

52 Years Later, IBM Apologizes for Firing Transgender Woman

In August 1968, Lynn Conway, a promising computer engineer at IBM in Sunnyvale, Calif., Was appointed to the office of Gene Myron Amdahl, the company's then director of advanced computer systems.

Mr. Amdahl had supported him when he learned she was "changing sex," wrote Ms. Conway in a report, but the company's executive director, Thomas J. Watson Jr., was less tolerant.

On that summer day, Mr Amdahl had grim news.

"I was fired," wrote Ms. Conway.

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

They watched last month as Diane Gherson, senior vice president of human resources at IBM, told Ms. Conway that while the company is now offering help and support for "employee changes," the treatment she received decades ago was not through progress can be compensated.

Ms. Conway, 82, then received a Lifetime Achievement Award for her "pioneering work" in computers, said a company spokeswoman.

"It was so unexpected," Ms. Conway said in an interview, adding that she remembered blinking back tears. "It was breathtaking."

For gay and transgender scientists and friends of Ms. Conway, the belated apology was an endorsement of the work she and others in the community had done in the science and technology fields. The apology, reported by Forbes, came four months after the Supreme Court ruled that a person could not be fired for being gay or transgender.

Rochelle Diamond, a scientist at the California Institute of Technology who is friends with Ms. Conway, said she learned of the apology honoring the memory of Rita Hester, a transgender woman, on Friday, the annual transgender day of remembrance who was stabbed death in 1998.

"This is important to us," said Ms. Diamond, who is also the retired chair of the National Organization for Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals. "It's another reason we need to remember all of the people who died because they were transsexuals and encourage transsexuals 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 healed.

"Nothing beats a clear excuse for justification and closure," said Ms. Burns, a retired British IT specialist who published Trans Britain: Our Journey From The Shadows.

Ms. Conway joined IBM in 1964 shortly after graduating from Columbia University's School of Engineering and Applied Science.

"It was a golden era in computer science, a time when fundamental breakthroughs were being made across the board," she wrote.

Ms. Conway was on the verge of such a breakthrough – she was on the architecture team on a project that focused on creating a computer that would run at top speed – when she underwent medical treatments. In early 1968, she told a supervisor that she was "performing a sex change to resolve a dire existential situation" that she had faced since childhood, she wrote.

Her direct line managers wanted her to stay with the company and had a plan: She would say goodbye to 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 "scandalous advertising" if her story came out.

The company's medical director said employees who learned she was transgender "could suffer from major emotional problems," Ms. Conway wrote.

After her release, Ms. Conway underwent sex confirmation surgery and began rebuilding her career.

She worked at Memorex in 1971 and was hired by the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in 1973, where she developed methodologies for the design of computer chips that would eventually be used by technology companies worldwide.

In 1985 she became a 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 she learned in 1999 that computer scientists were researching the project she was on at IBM.

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

In 2000 she created a website. Her goal, she wrote on the website, was "to shed light on and normalize the problems of gender identity and the processes of gender transition".

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

The website, which is rich in details about her experiences as a computer technician and a transgender woman, has become an important resource for other people in the transgender and larger gay community, Ms. Diamond said.

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 Professionals named Ms. Conway Engineer of the Year for her computer work and public relations.

Ms. Conway said she was never angry with the people who fired her.

"To go back and blame and defame people there is a problem with that because it tends to divide people and create a fear that is insoluble," she said. "You need evidence, however, that what happened to you today was seriously learned, appreciated and appalled."

IBM transgender workers who witnessed the apology said they felt "part of something phenomenal," said Ella Slade, who is LGBT + and a global leader at IBM, whose pronouns are them and they.

"Lynn made a comment at one point about her attendance at this IBM event as if she was returning home, and it's hard not to stop hearing that," they said.