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Late ina young researcher delving into the secret history of a 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.

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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 or in the numerous articles about her in technical journals.

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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.

But she knew that could not happen without opening a door on her past she had kept locked for more than 30 years.

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Only after agonizing for weeks did Conway telephone Smotherman and unburden herself of an extraordinary story. Gender is the most fundamental component of our self-image, the foundation of the personality we present to everyone around us. Today the intricacies of gender have worked their way into cultural, scientific, even political debate. 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. Transsexualism, the most extreme expression of gender discordance, may be our last taboo. At least 40, Americans have undertaken the surgery and therapy to make the transition from male to female and as many as 20, 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.

Today Conway lives in a home outside Ann Arbor, where she is professor of computer science emerita at the University of Michigan. 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. Vernon, N. A round-faced little boy with direct blue eyes, Robert by the age of 4 was giving off als--faint to outsiders but alarming to his parents--that he was not a normal male.

He shunned the other boys and preferred the sedate play of girls in groups. He had just gotten out the words when he felt as though every eye in the store was fixed on him. From that point on his parents watched carefully for any s 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 expressions of maternal love had somehow softened him.

He ended up feeling that he was being watched all the time. The brothers shared an unquenchable interest in nature and science. Whatever was not on hand they scrounged during weekend forays to the public dump. In high school he resolved to build a radio-telescope. It wasand searching the skies for radio waves emitted by cosmic bodies--now an indispensable tool of modern astronomy--barely ranked as an authentic scientific application.

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But these pitiable cosmetic measures only sharpened his internal conflict. In s 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 s of incipient effeminacy but never raised the issue in conversation. 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. 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.

In a surprisingly high of births--as many as one inaccording to pediatric surgeons-- 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. University life was liberating. The hormones did their job. By his senior year the strain was starting to tell.

He started drinking heavily, self-medicating his psyche with buck-a-bottle fortified wine the way he self-medicated his body with estrogen. 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. The consultation began auspiciously. Robert described his feelings of sexual disjunction as the doctor listened tolerantly.

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. 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. 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 he enrolled at Columbia University. More important, his sterling work landed him a job offer from Herb Schorr, a Columbia instructor who was also a research executive at IBM.

Watson Jr. For Robert the sheer cerebral bravado of the group was a revelation. The issue, vastly simplified, was how to allow the machine to execute more than one instruction--say, adding, multiplying, or comparing two s--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 s.

But often one instruction cannot be executed until another is completed--for example the addition of two s, 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. For he had not moved to California alone. Her name has been changed.

She was a pretty brunet from a Catholic family working to raise tuition for nursing school. When school d that fall they continued meeting socially in the city. The next thing they knew, Sue was pregnant. I really looked forward to it. For a while that might have been true, as Robert immersed himself in the mundane demands of married life.

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Their daughter Kelly was born in February 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. Whitney or Yosemite National Park that left his colleagues winded. Meanwhile, the medical establishment was finally starting to acknowledge gender identity issues. 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 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 never came.

On a drive home from a dinner party one evening, he pulled to the side of the road, overcome by feelings of alienation. But that did not make them easier to talk about. The isolation only seemed to increase. Brooding alone one night in as Sue and the children slept, he broke down again. Weeping uncontrollably, he dug out a Colt. 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.

Benjamin agreed to accept him as one of his last patients. The operation would prove to be the easy part. 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. But problems surfaced immediately.

Indeed, IBM corporate management, unable to see how Robert could keep his past secret from his co-workers, feared disruption. His sex reasment surgery, as it was formally known, was scheduled to take place in a few months.

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Through the Gender Labyrinth