Through the Gender Labyrinth
How a bright boy with a penchant for tinkering grew up to be one of the top women in her high-tech field
Late in 1998, a young researcher delving into the secret history of a
30-year-old supercomputer project at IBM published an appeal for help. As
Mark Smotherman explained in an Internet posting, he knew that the
project had pioneered several supercomputing technologies. But beyond
that, the trail was cold. IBM itself appeared to have lost all record of
the work, as if having experienced a corporate lobotomy. Published
details were sketchy and its chronology full of holes. He had been unable
to find anyone with full knowledge of what had once been called "Project
Within a few days, a cryptic e-mail arrived at Smotherman's Clemson
University office in South Carolina. The sender was Lynn Conway, one of
the most distinguished American women in computer science. She seemed not
only to know the entire history of Project Y, but to possess reams of
material about it.
Over the next few weeks, Conway helped Smotherman fill in many of the
gaps, but her knowledge presented him with another mystery: How did she
know? There was no mention of her name in any of the team rosters. Nor
was any association with IBM mentioned in her published resume or in the
numerous articles about her in technical journals. When he probed, she
would reply only that she had worked at the company under a different
name--and her tone made it clear there was no point in asking further.
What Smotherman could not know was that his appeal for strictly
technical information had presented Lynn Conway with a deeply personal
dilemma. She was eager for the story of IBM's project to emerge and for
her own role in the work to be celebrated, not suppressed. But she knew
that could not happen without opening a door on her past she had kept
locked for more than 30 years.
Only after agonizing for weeks did Conway telephone Smotherman and
unburden herself of an extraordinary story.
"You see," she began, "when I was at IBM, I was a boy."
PART I / ROBERT
NATURE DIRECTS LIVING THINGS INTO A VAST MAZE OF SEXUAL diversity from
which our culture provides only two acceptable exits: male and female.
Gender is the most fundamental component of our self-image, the
foundation of the personality we present to everyone around us. Think of
the very first question one asks about a newborn: "Is it a boy or a
Today the intricacies of gender have worked their way into cultural,
scientific, even political debate. Why shouldn't girls compete against
boys in math, or on the playground? Would little boys be less beastly if
society discouraged rough play? Where, in fact, does our gender identity
reside: In our physique? Our brain? Or somewhere deeper, in our soul?
That society has begun to grapple openly with these issues suggests
how profoundly absorbing the subject is. "There's a little bit of each
gender in each person, so there's something intriguing about what exists
on the other side," says George Brown, a psychiatrist at the Veterans
Administration Medical Center in Johnson City, Tenn. "But there's also a
threat that in exploring the subject I might find out something I feel is
very dangerous." This implicit threat may explain why, over the past 30
years, science has learned less about the mysteries of gender than about
the origins of the universe.
Transsexualism, the most extreme expression of gender discordance, may
be our last taboo. At least 40,000 Americans have undertaken the surgery
and therapy to make the transition from male to female and as many as
20,000 more may have gone from female to male. But so strong is the
stigma, so blatant the discrimination, that most keep the change a secret
by shedding their old lives, jobs and friends along with their old
gender. Lynn Conway, among the first Americans to undergo a sex change,
came to give the secret life into which it forced her a name: "stealth."
Today Conway lives in a home outside Ann Arbor, where she is professor
of computer science emerita at the University of Michigan. Slim and tall,
with light brown hair, long, slender fingers and an engineer's
unsentimental directness, she says she knew that the operation that
changed her gender would consign her to a life of hardship. And she knew
it would be worth it. Peering out over the 24 acres of meadow, marsh and
woodland she shares with her boyfriend of 13 years in a rural district of
lower Michigan, she recalls the risks she confronted three decades ago.
"The prediction by everyone then was that what was happening to me would
be a disaster," she says. "But sometimes in your gut, you know something
* * * A CHILD, WHOM FOR REASONS OF FAMILY PRIVACY WE SHALL call Robert
Sanders, was born in Mt. Vernon, N.Y., to a schoolteacher and a chemical
engineer who divorced when he was 7. A round-faced little boy with direct
blue eyes, Robert by the age of 4 was giving off signals--faint to
outsiders but alarming to his parents--that he was not a normal male
child. He shunned the other boys and preferred the sedate play of girls
in groups. One day, walking through a clothing store in Scarsdale with
his mother, he stopped, transfixed by a girl's cotton print dress, one
with puffy sleeves like his little friend Janet wore.
"Can I have one like that?"
He had just gotten out the words when he felt as though every eye in
the store was fixed on him. "No, you may not have that dress," his mother
snapped. "You are not a girl!" It was obvious even to his 4-year-old ears
that he had committed some terrible blunder, but he did not know what.
From that point on his parents watched carefully for any signs of
effeminacy, which they mercilessly exterminated. They cut his hair back
almost to the scalp, leaving just enough in the front to be combed back.
His mother stopped cuddling him, barely touched him anymore, as though
fearing that her previous expressions of maternal love had somehow
softened him. He ended up feeling that he was being watched all the time.
The vigilance ebbed slightly after his parents' divorce. Robert's
mother was so busy teaching that he and his younger brother, Blair, were
left to their own devices after school. The brothers shared an
unquenchable interest in nature and science. The house was full of the
flotsam and jetsam of their mother's schoolroom assignments--scrap
lumber, galvanized tin, all kinds of junk that became the raw material
for countless backyard projects. Whatever was not on hand they scrounged
during weekend forays to the public dump.
When school ended for the summer, the projects started, fueled by
Robert's precocious talent for design and construction. He hand-built a
hi-fi system, and then a wood-framed enlarger for the brothers' hobby of
photography. In high school he resolved to build a radio-telescope. It
was 1952, and searching the skies for radio waves emitted by cosmic
bodies--now an indispensable tool of modern astronomy--barely ranked as
an authentic scientific application. Nevertheless, Robert studied
nonstop, drafted a design, acquired the necessary lumber and aluminum
sheeting and, with Blair's help, erected in the backyard a working
contraption, 12 feet in diameter. "Robert had this very strong
personality trait of studying things well, coming up with a plan and
carrying the plan through to completion," Blair says. "There's no
stopping a person who continually does that."
What Blair did not comprehend was that his older brother's
determination shrouded--or perhaps counterbalanced--deep inner turmoil.
With puberty Robert's unremitting feelings of girlishness boiled over,
setting up a violent conflict with the inexorable masculinization of his
body. He did everything he could to forestall what was
happening--surreptitiously shaving his legs, shaping his eyebrows,
pilfering women's clothes from relatives' homes. But these pitiable
cosmetic measures only sharpened his internal conflict.
In 1950s Westchester County, sex remained firmly outside the bounds of
polite discussion, even within families. There was no one he could talk
to for support, encouragement or explanation. His mother glared at any
signs of incipient effeminacy but never raised the issue in conversation.
The denial within Robert's family was fully reflected in society at
The prevailing view of transsexualism as a psychological disturbance
is both the cause and the result of the poverty of scientific research
into the foundation of gender identification. What is known is that there
are four broad and somewhat related elements. These can be categorized as
genetic, hormonal, physical and neurological. In most cases all four are
in sync. A female child inherits one X chromosome from each parent and
develops, under the influence of the "female" hormone estrogen, secondary
sex characteristics such as breasts and the ability to ovulate. This
child has a vagina, uterus and ovaries, and considers herself
psychologically a girl. A male child inherits one X and one Y chromosome
and develops facial hair and greater muscle mass under the influence of
testosterone. This child has a penis and testes and psychologically
considers himself a boy. But it sometimes happens that nature, usually so
efficient at managing the cascade of biological events that produces a
newborn, leaves one or more of these elements out of sync. The Y
chromosome might lack a gene allowing the body to respond to the male
hormone, in which case the result is an XY female--outwardly
indistinguishable from a normal female. The reproductive system is
susceptible to a wide range of defects that come under the category of
"intersex"--the presence of biological elements of both genders. In a
surprisingly high number of births--as many as one in 500, according to
pediatric surgeons--a child is born with anomalous genitalia that in the
most severe cases leave its gender hard to determine.
In the rarest cases the sole element out of sync is the neurological.
The cause and, therefore, the remedy for the mental conviction that one
is a whole being trapped in a perfect, but profoundly inappropriate, body
is a mystery buried deep in the labyrinth of the mind.
* * * ROBERT COULD DO LITTLE TO EXPLORE THIS MAZE until he left home at 17
to study physics at MIT. University life was liberating. He thrived in
the rarefied competition of 900 of the country's brightest high school
graduates, finishing his freshman year in the top 2% of his class. For
the first couple of years he kept one foot planted uneasily in the
"normal" life of a young heterosexual, going out occasionally with groups
of male and female friends. On these dates, "he was as normal as any
innocent kid," recalls Dorothy Hahn, who married Robert's closest MIT
friend, Karl. "He was awkward with girls, but not excessively so."
But release from his mother's repressive scrutiny also gave him the
space to air what he sensed was his truer self. He gave his increasingly
assertive female persona the name Lynn--a derivative of his middle
name--and clandestinely purchased women's clothing from the Sears
catalog. When he learned that a group of acquaintances was burgling
pharmacies for narcotics, he did a characteristically thorough survey of
the endocrinological literature and presented them with an order, crafted
with a physician's precision, for injectable estrogen. The hormones did
their job. Robert's skin and features softened, his body hair thinned, he
began to develop breasts. Gingerly, he began coming out to a few close
friends, then wearing women's clothing in public, where his androgynous
femininity attracted male attention. A photographic self-portrait from
this period shows a waif-like "Lynn" in a modest black dress, hair tucked
behind one ear, bare legs shod in simple pumps. Some of his new male
friends became lovers, yet Robert never saw these as homosexual
relationships, for although his partners knew he was male, they regarded
him not as a boy but as a girl, as "Lynn."
This lonely experimentation anticipated what has since become the
professional standard in the treatment of transsexuals--the "real life
experience," in which the medical and legal systems require patients to
live for a year in their "psychological gender" before being judged ready
for sex-change surgery. Without professional support, however, Robert's
double life--he still attended class as a man--only intensified his
profound psychic confusion. By his senior year the strain was starting to
tell. His female identity and his black-market hormones were increasingly
at war with his body's determination to create the brow ridge and other
features that telegraph masculinity to others on a subconscious level.
He started drinking heavily, self-medicating his psyche with
buck-a-bottle fortified wine the way he self-medicated his body with
estrogen. He expressed abhorrence of his physique and talked about
castrating himself to arrest his body's relentless output of
testosterone, going so far as to investigate how to create a germ-free
environment to undertake the surgery. Karl Hahn, who had transferred to a
premedical program at Boston University, was sufficiently alarmed that he
found Robert a psychologist.
The man Karl had in mind was a professor at the medical school who
reputedly knew something about transsexuality and the available options.
(News of Christine Jorgensen's Danish sex-change operation had broken not
long before.) At the very least, Karl reasoned, this would provide Robert
with a professional shoulder to lean on, someone to assure him that he
wasn't going insane, that he need not grapple with his bewildering
condition in hopeless isolation.
The consultation began auspiciously. Robert described his feelings of
sexual disjunction as the doctor listened tolerantly. Then, abruptly,
with a serene detachment that gave his words a horrible finality, he
punctured Robert's hopes.
"Unfortunately, there isn't anything you can do to become a woman," he
said. Crisply he outlined the stark choices. Robert could cease the
hormone-taking and resolve to end this phase of sexual experimentation on
his own, or the state of Massachusetts would do it for him, by
institutionalizing him as a sexual deviant.
"But I've heard about these operations," Robert protested. "I thought
you would tell me where to go to get them."
"Those operations don't make you into a woman," came the reply. "They
just make you into a freak."
* * * ROBERT HIT BOTTOM. HE FLUNKED OUT OF MIT. ON WHAT was to have been his
graduation day he was in San Francisco, living on the fringes of the gay
community, still desperately searching for where he fit. But he found no
answers there, because he did not see himself as a gay man attracted to
other men, but rather as a woman attracted to men--if only he could
rectify nature's dirty trick.
After his hormone supply ran out the following winter, he ended up
back home, working days as a repair technician at a hearing-aid company.
With Blair away at college, Robert and his mother occupied the house
alone, coexisting uneasily in mutual avoidance, rarely speaking, rarely
even passing through the same room, lest the slightest physical encounter
remind them of the unaddressed issues between them. Having failed to find
a community that would have him, Robert felt degraded and humiliated. The
silence of the house settled on him like a reproach.
Again, it was intellectual restlessness that stirred him from his
torpor. The deadening busywork of hearing-aid repair could not keep him
for long, so in 1961 he enrolled at Columbia University. There he once
again excelled, earning bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical
engineering after only two years. More important, his sterling work
landed him a job offer from Herb Schorr, a Columbia instructor who was
also a research executive at IBM.
Schorr's secret "Project Y" team was engaged in designing the world's
fastest supercomputer. Soon to be renamed ACS, for "Advanced Computing
System," the project had the special status of being a pet of IBM's
chairman, the imperious Thomas J. Watson Jr., who was irked that his
company had fallen behind its rivals in its efforts to reach and hold
this prestigious beachhead.
As elite and insular as the Manhattan Project, ACS was shortly
relocated to Menlo Park, Calif., where the team of 200 engineers occupied
its own building on Sand Hill Road--a stretch of highway famous today as
the center of Silicon Valley's venture capital community. For Robert the
sheer cerebral bravado of the group was a revelation. Energized by the
pioneering work taking place around him, one day he experienced a flash
of insight that at a stroke solved one of the team's hardest problems.
The issue, vastly simplified, was how to allow the machine to execute
more than one instruction--say, adding, multiplying, or comparing two
numbers--at a time. A computer can handle several instructions at once if
they are independent--say, if two instructions involve adding two
unrelated pairs of numbers. But often one instruction cannot be executed
until another is completed--for example the addition of two numbers, one
of which is the sum of two others summed by a prior instruction. The
trick is to figure out which instructions can be jumped ahead in line.
Robert's insight, which became known as "dynamic instruction
scheduling," or DIS, was a way of constantly analyzing a string of
instructions and ordering them efficiently while keeping the number of
transistors performing these logical tests--still, in the mid-1960s,
extremely expensive--to a minimum. Within days the team had incorporated
DIS into the ACS architecture. Over the years it would filter into
generations of high-performance, so-called "superscalar," computers.
Yet as he reached this pinnacle of professional achievement Robert's
personal life was coming apart. For he had not moved to California alone.
* * * DURING THE SUMMER BETWEEN COLUMBIA terms Robert had befriended a
co-worker at the hearing-aid company named Sue. (Her name has been
changed.) She was a pretty brunet from a Catholic family working to raise
tuition for nursing school. When school resumed that fall they continued
meeting socially in the city. They took walks in the park and enjoyed
casual lunches, forging a relationship that the inexperienced Robert,
oblivious to Sue's real feelings, considered platonic. One night after
one of their non-date "dates," Sue got affectionate and Robert, despite
himself, got aroused. The next thing they knew, Sue was pregnant. For
months Robert fended off Sue's insistence that they marry, but finally
gave in. "I felt like it was a trap," Lynn says. "But the fact there was
going to be a baby seemed like a miracle. I really looked forward to it.
It was, like, 'Robert's getting trapped, but Lynn gets to have a baby.' I
didn't realize the implications."
To friends aware of Robert's psychological struggle, his marriage
suggested that he had decided to surrender to living with a permanent
dichotomy in his sexual being. For a while that might have been true, as
Robert immersed himself in the mundane demands of married life. Their
daughter Kelly was born in February 1964. (The daughters' names have been
changed.) Amid the excitement of his new work and the daily routine of
raising a family on his $15,000 salary, the conflicts of gender seemed to
Any personality quirks he did display melted into the eccentricities
of a team of gifted engineers engaged in teaching a room-sized
contrivance of transistors and wiring how to cogitate. Robert "was always
somewhat strange, but all these guys were strange," recalls Herb Schorr,
chuckling. "My nickname was 'The Zookeeper.' " Erudition in this group
ran deep rather than wide; they could debug the circuits of a digital
machine from deep within its logic structure, but of the outside world
they were as innocent as monks. "When these guys went out for beers in
the evening, they would sit and talk about technical things, not sexual
things," Schorr says. No one seemed to notice even a hint of effeminacy
in Robert's manner; if anything he had a reputation of being "macho," an
aficionado of high-speed motorcycle riding, fit enough to easily handle
hikes on social outings to Mt. Whitney or Yosemite National Park that
left his colleagues winded.
Meanwhile, the medical establishment was finally starting to
acknowledge gender identity issues. In his 1966 book "The Transsexual
Phenomenon," Harry Benjamin, a prominent New York endocrinologist, not
only gave the syndrome a name but also chided his peers for their
ignorance: "Even at present, any attempt to treat these patients . . . in
the direction of their wishes--that is to say 'change of sex'--is often
met . . . with arrogant rejection and/or condemnation." Benjamin wrote of
patients he had treated with hormones and steered toward surgery. Robert,
however, reacted to this glimmer of professional understanding not with
relief but despondency.
As physical masculinization was catching up to him, his marriage to
Sue was faltering under the pressure of mutual frustration. Their sexual
relations had been rare and unsatisfying, although not nonexistent: A
second girl, Tracy, was born in 1966.
He was 28, already raising a family, manacled so firmly into the role
of father, husband and man that he felt it would take a Houdini's skills
to extricate himself.
The motorcycle rides became more breakneck, the rock climbing more
adventurous. At first the fear was distracting. But implicit in the
danger-seeking was self-destructiveness, a subconscious hope that an
accident might bring his inner guilt and turmoil to an end. Deliverance
On a drive home from a dinner party one evening, he pulled to the
side of the road, overcome by feelings of alienation. Breaking down in
tears he blurted: "I need to be a woman." It was the first time Sue had
heard her husband put his feelings of disaffection into words. But that
did not make them easier to talk about. The isolation only seemed to
increase. Brooding alone one night in 1967 as Sue and the children slept,
he broke down again. Weeping uncontrollably, he dug out a Colt .45
automatic pistol he had used for target practice and placed it to his
head. He was holding it when Sue, awakened by the wailing and sobbing
coming from the next room, appeared at the door, frozen in shock. The
next thing Robert knew, the gun was on the table and Sue was assuring him
that they would do anything they could to relieve his torment.
With Sue's consent, Robert contacted Benjamin, then in his 80s and on
the eve of retirement. Benjamin agreed to accept him as one of his last
patients. Under Benjamin's care, Robert resumed estrogen therapy and
prepared for an operation that would remove the physical signs of his
maleness and give him female genitalia, the "change of sex" he so
ardently desired. The operation would prove to be the easy part.
* * * ROBERT HAD VISUALIZED A NEARLY SEAMLESS TRANSITION from male to
female. At IBM he would have his supervisors change his records so that
he was no longer Robert, but Lynn, and he would transfer to another lab
to start afresh. At home, following the separation and divorce he knew
were unavoidable, he would simply visit as "Aunt Lynn"; at 2 and 4 the
children should be young enough to barely register the change. But
problems surfaced immediately. At work, his supervisor, an engineer named
Don Rozenberg, recognized instinctively that IBM possessed exactly the
wrong culture to indulge Robert's unprecedented proposal. "It was still
white shirts, blue serge suits and wingtip shoes," Rozenberg says. "This
simply wasn't the IBM image."
Indeed, IBM corporate management, unable to see how Robert could keep
his past secret from his co-workers, feared disruption. "The decision was
made," Rozenberg recalls, "to quietly move him out of the company." For
Robert the loss of his job could not have come at a worse time. His sex
reassignment surgery, as it was formally known, was scheduled to take
place in a few months. It would cost about $4,000--an enormous sum in
1968--not including several thousand dollars in ancillary costs:
electrolysis, counseling, hormone therapy. Beyond the financial
implications, the stigma of banishment from one of the world's most
respected corporations fell upon him like an excommunication.
The few friends and colleagues Robert told of his medical situation
identified with Sue, berating him for misleading her and exposing his
young family to shame and disgrace. Nevertheless, Robert felt he had to
go through with the surgery; it was change or die. In November 1968 he
boarded a PSA plane for San Diego, then a bus to the Mexican border and a
taxi through Tijuana to the medical clinic of Dr. Jose Jesus Barbosa, a
plastic surgeon with an elite practice among affluent Americans. Barbosa
also had experience performing the so-called penile inversion procedure,
in which the sensitive skin of the penis is used to construct a vaginal
canal. In a 4 1/2-hour operation Barbosa transformed Robert's genitalia
into those of a woman, fully sensitive and even capable of orgasm.
But the surgery failed to address another issue. Under pressure from
family and friends who saw Robert's choice as something depraved, Sue
wavered about letting "Aunt Lynn" stay in the girls' lives. Her doubts
grew when, after Robert left IBM, the family spent three months on
welfare. The troupe of county social workers thus introduced into their
lives were openly appalled at Robert's decision. Sue, worried that the
children might be taken from her, finally barred the girls' father from
their lives on threat of obtaining a court order.
Lynn, now living as a woman, did not underestimate the threat. An
encounter with the law would mean public exposure and the undoing of all
her efforts to start life over. So she capitulated. Sue granted her a
final visit with the children in late January 1969. Dressed as a man for
the last time in her life, Lynn spent a few hours watching her towheaded
toddlers chase their shadows across the playground of a Palo Alto park
and tried to stifle the flood of family memories that washed over her,
such as the camping trips on which Robert would hike Yosemite's trails
with little Kelly strapped into a carrier on his back.
When the setting sun signaled that the afternoon was drawing to an
end, Lynn called to them, enveloped each girl in hugs, and tried casually
to deflect their questions about why Daddy had to leave so soon and where
he was going. Finally, her heart breaking, she walked away. She would not
see either of them again for 14 years.
PART II / LYNN
AS THE '60S WOUND DOWN, THE PENINSULA STRETCHING from San Jose to San
Francisco was undergoing a transformation. The orchards blanketing its
rolling ridges were falling under the bulldozer, peach trees making way
for low-slung industrial complexes. Although it would be several years
before a local newspaperman coined the term "Silicon Valley," the
region's growing electronics industry already evinced an unflagging
demand for electrical engineers.
After the operation, Lynn had moved "Robert" out forever. She had her
surname legally changed to Conway, after the dynamic heroine of a
favorite Helen MacInnes adventure novel, and began life anew.
It was not easy. For one thing her medical history proved a formidable
obstacle to employment. Firm after firm made tentative job offers, only
to change their minds as soon as she disclosed her condition on medical
questionnaires. A local RCA research lab, intrigued by her skills but
nervous about her history, offered her a position on condition she pass a
psychiatric examination. Years later Lynn produced a copy of the
psychiatrist's report from her meticulous files: two stapled pages, with
the faded, grainy quality that bespeaks repeated photocopying: "Lynn
Conway is a 31-year-old transsexual . . . articulate, composed,
attractive, and neatly attired . . . comfortable and optimistic about her
life . . . no indication of any abnormal mental trends . . . very
superior intellectual capacity . . . [nothing] that would preclude her
appropriateness for employment."
RCA withdrew the offer.
Eventually she hooked up with a small company desperate for
experienced programmers. That job led to one at Memorex, the recording
equipment company, which had decided to plunge into the computer
manufacturing business and needed an experienced designer. Her reputation
grew, and in 1972 she found herself weighing the most intriguing offer of
The offer had come from a new electronics lab established by Xerox
Corp. in an industrial park adjacent to Stanford University. Xerox,
anxious that the emerging technology of digital computing might render
obsolete its monopoly in office copying, had hired a few score of the
smartest young engineers and scientists it could find, placed them in a
California glade as far from its Connecticut headquarters as geography
allowed and instructed them to follow their imaginations. The Palo Alto
Research Center, or PARC, would eventually oblige by inventing the
personal computer, the laser printer, Windows-style computer displays and
much more in a legendary burst of innovation.
When Lynn joined PARC in 1973, much of this work was underway. The
lab's revolutionary personal computer, the Alto, was already established
as an indispensable office tool, each one linked to scores of others via
the lab's ingenious data network known as Ethernet. But her own work
would follow a slightly different path.
One of PARC's outside consultants, Caltech engineering professor
Carver Mead, had proclaimed a revolutionary technical advance in
computing. By imprinting ever more miniature circuits on silicon wafers,
scientists had turned the traditional axioms of computer design on their
heads. Computers were made of devices (transistors) and wires (their
connections). Historically the transistors were expensive and the wires
cheap, which dictated not only the architecture of the computer but the
uses to which it was put--largely sequential, arithmetical computation.
But silicon reversed the costs. Transistors, printed on layers of
silicon, became cheap, while the infinitesimal connections became the
cost bottlenecks. Mead foresaw that the difference would require a new
kind of design but would open the possibility of nonarithmetic
computation. Computers, Mead wrote, would no longer be big machines,
useful only for crunching numbers, but tiny ones "deep down inside our
telephone, or our washing machine, or our car."
Lynn was among the few engineers at PARC to buy into Mead's dramatic
rethinking of computing's potential. To his crystalline intuition she
contributed the hands-on engineering experience and deep understanding of
computer architecture she had gained at IBM and Memorex. ("I had never
designed a computer," Mead says. "She had.")
She also contributed the concept of design rules for the new
technology of "very large-scale integrated circuits" (or, in computer
shorthand, VLSI). These were principles that could be applied to almost
any particular VLSI design, the way one can use the same-sized bricks to
build an infinite variety of walls. Lynn and Carver Mead codified their
work in a textbook that was issued in 1979 as "Introduction to VLSI
Systems" or, as it became known to a generation of engineering students,
Mead was already a national figure in engineering, but the book
cemented Lynn's reputation. Even before its formal publication she had
begun proselytizing about VLSI at universities across the country,
including a semester spent teaching at none other than MIT (where she
kept her previous matriculation a secret). "It really did change the view
the technical world had of the potential of silicon," Mead says. This set
the stage for a genuine computer revolution and the ultimate realization
of VLSI principles: the Pentium chip, which today powers millions of
* * * IN THE BROADEST SENSE, THE intellectual energy of Silicon Valley
mirrored Lynn's own flowering, which had begun with her operation. Her
mind and body finally synchronized, she felt as though she had been
reborn as a new emotional being. "I was experiencing a complete and
profound new internal and external reality," she says, "going through
what amounted to a second puberty."
Her social life blossomed. She frequented singles bars, sampled the
novel technology of computer dating, stayed out dancing and socializing
into the small hours. A photograph from the period shows her nestled in
the driver's seat of her new red Datsun Z-car in a miniskirt and purple
blouse, the prototypical single professional. She carried on an active
sex life and, like any woman in her 30s, contemplated love and marriage.
But she was not like any other woman, and her expectations gradually
faded. She got close enough to a number of boyfriends to share her past
with them. At that point the relationships typically stalled out. "I
backed off, thinking I would never find anybody," she says. "I felt good
about myself, but I was also thinking that someone might not want to
marry someone like me."
Such episodes reminded her of the ever-present danger of exposure. For
the most part she kept the truth behind a shroud. At PARC, a place where
your academic credentials were as much a part of your identity as the
music you listened to or the books you read, she managed never to let on
that she had attended MIT and worked on a pioneering supercomputer at
IBM. No one ever probed too deeply: It was as if she emitted some
imperceptible signal telling colleagues that there were places in her
past where one did not go.
Paul Losleben, a computer engineer who worked with her in a 1980s
government program, recalls hiking with her one afternoon in the Palo
Alto foothills. "I came away just brimming with new ideas without being
really sure where they came from," he says. "I was just overwhelmed by
her intelligence, her creativity, her grasp of topic." Only later did he
reflect on how little she had given up of herself. "It was as though she
was a totally professional person," Losleben recalls, "without any
For all that, through the '70s and '80s Lynn detected hints that
social attitudes toward transsexuality were changing. In 1983, when Lynn
was recruited to head a supercomputer program at the Defense Department's
Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, she sailed through her FBI
background check so easily that she became convinced that the Pentagon
must have already encountered a transsexual or two in its work force.
Transsexualism may not have achieved mainstream acceptance, but at
least it was no longer universally viewed as a transgression against
nature. For one thing, there was more public awareness of the condition.
Eugene Biber, an American plastic surgeon, had performed his first
sex-change operation at his clinic in Trinidad, Colo., in 1969. ("Then
the grapevine started," says Biber, who has since performed more than
4,500 operations.) Meanwhile, Harry Benjamin's teachings on
transsexualism had spread. Stanford University established a program
studying the condition, lending transsexuals valuable credibility. From
time to time a prominent transsexual was "outed"--in 1976 it was the
tennis player Renee Richards--and to the extent she managed to come
through the attendant derision with her dignity intact, transsexualism
shed a bit more of its eccentricity. By the late 1970s an estimated 1,000
Americans were undergoing the surgery every year.
Lynn had to forge this path herself. Her mother and father died in the
1970s, still refusing to accept Robert's transition. But by then she had
already reconnected with her brother Blair, visiting him while he was in
San Francisco for an academic conference.
Blair had been aware of her transition, but they had never had a
conversation about it. Now they sat in his hotel room, facing the mutual
challenge of brother and brother recalibrating their lifelong
relationship--this time as brother and sister. For years Blair, now an
astronomer at the University of Wisconsin, would struggle to reconcile
the male role model of his formative years with this accomplished woman
who was part stranger. Over time he found the answer that allowed them to
come together again as family. "I think of them now as two different
people," he says.
And then, in 1983, Lynn arrived at the most disquieting stretch of
uncharted familial territory.
* * * FOR KELLY AND TRACY, THEIR FATHER'S absence was a mystery that
reasserted itself at regular intervals. At Christmastime, Lynn paid for
presents that would appear under the tree marked "Love, Dad"--apparently
so designated by Sue without Lynn's knowledge. Kelly recalled blurting to
a teacher in kindergarten or nursery school that she had once glimpsed
her father wearing women's clothes (the teacher summoned Sue to warn her
against such loose talk). And there were the monthly checks of child
support, signed by a "Lynn Conway," whom the girls imagined to be a
lawyer or agent of some sort.
"I had no memory of my father," Tracy recalls, "although I had the
image in my mind of someone really fabulous." Of the two children, it was
she who showed the greater interest in their father. When she turned 15
she began peppering her mother with questions. "I was a teenager watching
all my friends be Daddy's little girls, and I wanted to know who my dad
But her mother, who had spent more than a decade carefully dodging the
painful issue of the phantom Robert, was not about to confront it
head-on. Instead she chose to deal with the questions at a safe remove.
One day while traveling on business, Sue set down the broad details of
Robert's transformation in a letter and mailed it home, addressed to
Tracy opened the envelope and moments later burst into her older
sister's room. "You're not going to believe this!" They read the letter
together. There was something about how their father was "no longer a he,
but a she," and how their mother knew something was not right with Robert
but not exactly what. The letter could not help but raise more questions
than it answered, but Sue remained loath to fill in the gaps. The girls
struggled with wrenching questions, including the bedrock riddle of why
their father, whatever his condition, had stayed out of their lives.
Finally, when Kelly turned 18 in 1983, Lynn made contact. She
reintroduced herself via a series of short notes, then called to invite
her daughter to their first face-to-face meeting since that desolate day
at the playground. The bafflement and denial that had swept over Kelly
upon reading her mother's letter two years earlier had given way to a
wary curiosity. They met at a French restaurant in Palo Alto, where
Kelly, who had never been to such a place, marveled at how every dish
seemed slathered in rich sauce. As they ate, neither knew quite what to
say. "It was almost like two strangers meeting, because we really were
strangers," Kelly recalls.
Guardedly she brought Lynn up to date on her own life--she was already
married and had a baby boy at home. But the strained formality of the
setting prevented her from raising the most painful issues between them,
including the girls' profound feelings of abandonment. Throughout the
dinner she stole glances at the unfamiliar woman across the table, as
though searching for signs of herself. "I was trying to come to terms
with what our relationship was supposed to be," Kelly recalls. "Was she a
friend? My dad? An aunt?" The encounter left Kelly impressed by Lynn's
humor and intelligence, but also left too many ancient hurts unhealed. "I
didn't know after that night if I'd ever see her again," Kelly says.
"She'd been away forever, and I didn't know if she'd really be around."
They met a few more times in California. Then in 1985, after Lynn
moved to the University of Michigan as a professor and associate dean,
she invited Kelly and Tracy to her new home in Ann Arbor, treating them
to a shopping trip, lunch at the university, a day of canoeing, a hint of
what she had become during all those years offstage.
THE REWARDS AND PROFESSIONAL accolades of a distinguished career kept
coming in. Lynn received appointments to the board of trustees of MIT's
Draper Laboratory and the board of visitors of the U.S. Air Force Academy
(commemorated on her kitchen wall by a group photograph of the trustees,
all in flight suits, lined up against the red-mountained landscape of
Colorado Springs). A figure of undisputed authority in some of the most
abstruse corners of computing, Lynn won election to the National Academy
of Engineering in 1989.
There was, however, a lingering resentment. DIS, the logic system she
had invented at IBM, had become a standard of computer design. Yet others
were now claiming credit for the process, years after her brainstorm.
Reflecting on her life's tortuous path and wondering if her achievements
and those of her IBM colleagues had ever surfaced, she typed the word
"superscalar" into an Internet search engine and came up with Mark
Smotherman's Web page. It was headed: "ACS--The first superscalar
Lynn was not surprised that Smotherman had problems unearthing ACS'
history. Shortly after Robert Sanders' firing, the project had landed on
the wrong side of an internal power struggle at IBM and been shut down.
The team members dispersed and IBM's own institutional memory faded. The
one place where that memory resided, as it happened, was in Lynn's files.
The corporation had been so intent on ushering Robert Sanders out the
door that it had neglected to ask him to return any of the project
documents in his possession. Lynn still had them: reams of minutes,
memos, diagrams--the complete history of a forgotten breakthrough in
Lynn wrestled with the infinite complications that would be raised
should she make the cache public, thereby "outing" herself. Was she
entirely comfortable in her role as a woman? Was there perhaps some hint
still of shame? Was she a transsexual who happened to be a woman? A woman
who happened to be transsexual? Or simply, at last, a woman?
There were many reasons to remain quiet, but threaded through her own
life experience, Lynn also glimpsed a reason to step forward. Tens of
thousands of transsexuals, whether they had had their operation, were
contemplating one, or had chosen to live as the opposite sex without
undergoing surgery still were forced to make their way alone, as she had.
Who could know how many suffered in solitude, unaware of their options
and opportunities, of what their predecessors had learned about living
with their condition? Only when homosexuality had come out of the closet
did enlightenment start to ease the burden of gays and lesbians. Maybe it
was time for transsexuals to benefit from the same process. Almost before
knowing it, she had decided. Lynn copied the most important papers. After
carefully eradicating her old name and inserting the new on every title
page, she sent them to Smotherman and a few old colleagues. She was
emerging from stealth.
With the same determination she once devoted to designing and building
backyard radio-telescopes and room-sized computers she made contact with
old friends, revealed her past and challenged them to see her whole. She
directed some to her Web site,
where she posted a
candid "retrospective" of her life. Many were surprised at the
information, but no one shunned her. "I reassured her that I had known
about it and it was OK then and it was OK now," Carver Mead says.
For Lynn herself, the process meant reexamining a lifetime of
decisions and choices. Recently, on a drive home from her office in Ann
Arbor, Lynn reflected on the path onto which nature had steered her. "I
sometimes think that all this stuff"--the achievements of a hard-fought
career--"is overcompensation. If I'd been born 20 years later and
transitioned at the age of 20, I probably would have found a husband and
adopted kids. But I was just too early, and the transition came just too
late." She stopped for a few moments. The tears passed. "But I've got to
the point where that's just a fact of life."
Besides, she will tell you, she has too much to cherish now to dwell
One day in 1987, at a canoe shop in Ann Arbor, she fell into
conversation with a fellow enthusiast of nature. She ran into him again a
few weeks later at a canoeing party. He was a professional engineer named
Charlie, a hunter and outdoorsman who would shortly introduce her to his
other passion, amateur motocross racing.
A new possibility, long renounced, reappeared. Within a few months
they were living together and by 1994 they were looking for a house to
buy. In a rural township about a half hour from Ann Arbor there was a
trim little cottage on a few acres of marsh, meadow and wild woodland.
Tentatively, as though testing a stove top that had burned before, Lynn
sat Charlie down one night and broached a subject she knew she had left
too long unaired.
"I think there's something you need to know about me," she said.
"She began filling me in on things I'd never begun to suspect,"
Charlie recalls. "I've got to say it was a little bit stunning. I was in
a fog for a while, absorbing it. But I knew it was probably as hard for
her to get into as it was for me to hear it."
He was a single man, never married, distant from his family. Like her,
a soul looking for companionship and more. Despite his confusion, he
offered reassurance. "On the Huron when we met," he said later, "we were
both at a point in our lives where we needed someone like the person we
saw the other to be."
That's all Lynn ever wanted. To be seen by others as she had always
seen herself. And that's the person her friends and family members have
now accepted. Tracy and Kelly have welcomed her into their lives. To
their children she is, at last, their beloved "Aunt Lynn." Says Kelly, "I
love her and love for her to be in our lives. We're very close and very
similar. To us what happened in the past doesn't matter anymore."
- - -
Times Staff Writer Michael A. Hiltzik, Winner of a 1999 Pulitzer Prize, Is Author of the Book "Dealers of Lightning: Xerox Parc and the Dawn of the Computer Age" (Harpercollins).
He is Working on His First Novel
Copyright © 2000 Los Angeles Times