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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

November 19, 2000|MICHAEL A. HILTZIK | 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


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 Y."

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."


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 girl?"

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 is right."


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