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Amanda Simpson: A Transgender Rocket Scientist Goes to Washington

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Defense industry veteran Amanda Simpson of Tuscon, Arizona, who really is a rocket scientist, was just appointed by President Obama to the Department of Commerce's Bureau of Industry and Security as a senior technical advisor. Her job will include managing exports of dual use technology as well as conducting press and media liaison work for the agency.

Simpson is highly qualified for the position. She has worked in the aerospace and defense industry for 30 years, most recently serving as Deputy Director in Advanced Technology Development at Raytheon Missile Systems. She holds degrees in physics, engineering and business administration, and is a certified flight instructor and test pilot with 20 years of experience.

Simpson is not the first high-profile transgender appointment in Washington. She joins Diego Sanchez, who was named in 2008 by Representative Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, as senior policy advisor on issues regarding healthcare, veterans, labor, the U.S. Census, and LGBT rights.

These appointments represent a considerable change in the atmosphere in Washington. Consider the case of Diane Schroer in 2004. Schroer was an ex-Army Special Forces colonel who completed more than 450 parachute jumps, received numerous decorations including the Defense Superior Service Medal, and was handpicked to head up a classified national security operation. Shortly after retiring after twenty-five years of distinguished service, she accepted a job as a terrorism research analyst at the Library of Congress. Her employer-to-be thought they had found the perfect candidate.

But when Schroer told her future supervisor that she was in the process of a gender transition to female, the job offer was rescinded. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued, and in September of 2008 a federal judge ruled that the Library of Congress had discriminated against Schroer. It shouldn't have to work this way when one's transgender status is known.

There are many employed and successful transgender individuals, but you don't often hear their stories because they are living "stealth" (without disclosing transgender status). Living stealth used to be required of transgender people for a gender transition to be deemed successful. One of the more famous success stories in this category is Prof. Lynn Conway. Conway invented technology while she was at IBM in the 1960s that is used in most computers today. Yet when Conway announced her plans to transition from male to female, she was fired. How ironic that seems now because the IBM of today was the first corporation to add gender identity and expression to its global nondiscrimination policy.

Following her transition in 1968, Conway chose to live stealth to preserve her career prospects. She went on to a distinguished research career, pioneering new methods of computer chip design while working at Xerox's legendary Palo Alto, California research laboratory, and she is now professor emerita of engineering at the University of Michigan and a prestigious Fellow of the IEEE. She chose to come out as transgender only in 1999, when an author writing on the history of computer science set out to find the person who had developed that amazing technology at IBM.

Today, corporate America seems to doing fine in accepting transgender workers. According to the 2010 Corporate Equality Index of the Human Rights Campaign, fully three-quarters of the 590 corporations surveyed prohibit discrimination based on gender identity or expression. Those accepting transgender workers include some of the nation's largest companies, such as AT&T, Bank of America, Chevron, and Simpson's former employer, Raytheon.

Raytheon made history in 2005 when it became the first of the major aerospace and defense contractors to add gender identity and expression to its employment nondiscrimination policy. In 2006, Raytheon was joined by three of its competitors. Later that year, Raytheon became the first corporate sponsor of the Southern Comfort Conference, probably the largest transgender conference in the U.S. It is in this accepting environment that Simpson flourished.

And Simpson has been visible in her success. Acceptance of transgender people in greater society will accelerate when others who are successful are open about being transgender. Simpson is certainly doing her part.

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