Exit Interview: Kathryn Lenth — How to lose a computer scientist (VIDEO)

Computer scientists aren’t easy to find in Wyoming.

We don’t have a tech sector. Wyoming missed the tech boom. According to the Computing Technology Industry Association, we rank dead last in the United States in the percentage of our workforce employed by tech.

Recently, however, some state officials have begun to promote technology as a promising industry to help Wyoming diversify its economy.

During the 2018 Legislative session, lawmakers passed bills that require computer science to be taught in Wyoming grade schools, as well as others that ease regulations on cryptocurrency technologies like bitcoin and blockchain.

Meanwhile, the state’s official economic diversification task force, ENDOW, urges Wyoming to embrace “disruptive technologies” like artificial intelligence, cloud solutions, and advanced robotics in its 20-year plan.

But for all these efforts, lawmakers have failed to pass one piece of legislation that would dramatically help Wyoming’s tech sector: a statewide law to ban discrimination based on a person’s sexuality or gender identity.

A jewel for Casper College

Kathryn Lenth has left Wyoming.

Her departure made the state’s tiny tech workforce even smaller. But her story illustrates in a big way the importance of LGBT nondiscrimination laws—and their impact on tech.

Lenth is a mathematician and computer scientist. As a Ph.D. student at the University of Wyoming, she developed computer programs to help analyze material impurities for industrial engineering. Her experience prepared her for work conducting research in the nation’s top laboratories.

“My experience as an open LGBT person in Casper is that we are tolerated, but we are not accepted by most people, and we’re certainly not welcomed.”

But her heart kept her in Wyoming.

“I was finishing my Ph.D. in Laramie, and I found this really, really great, groovy chick in Casper on eHarmony,” Lenth said. “We fell in love, and when I finished my doctorate, we moved to Casper together.”

Lenth, who is also a passionate teacher, took a job at Casper College as the school’s only computer science professor—in fact, she was its entire computer science department. For four years, Lenth trained dozens of Wyoming students to code in various computer languages, build software, and cultivate other skills that led them to jobs in web design, app development, and other realms of tech.

A signal that they didn’t want me here

During her tenure at Casper College, Lenth also transitioned from male to female and began living as an openly transgender person. As she experienced hostility around town—and as the Legislature dramatically cut Casper College’s budget—Lenth and her partner, Kristen, began to question their decision to stay.

“My experience as an LGBT person—as an open LGBT person—in Casper is that we are tolerated, but we are not accepted by most people, and we’re certainly not welcomed,” Lenth said.

Still, Kathryn and Kristen were happy in Casper, for the most part. And they felt comfortable at Casper College, where Kristen was chair of the music department.

“At Casper College, I felt pretty good,” Lenth said. “Most of—in fact, all of—my colleagues have been absolutely fantastic. My students have been great. Until recently, I thought that I was accepted and welcomed at Casper College also.”

But that sense of comfort abruptly ended, prompting Kathryn and Kristen to leave.

“Last year, the Board of Trustees at Casper College removed sexual orientation and gender identity from the nondiscrimination policy,” Lenth explained. “That was sort of a signal to me that they just didn’t want me there.”

Casper College’s Board of Trustees has since returned LGBT protections to its nondiscrimination policy. But the damage was done—the message sent. Lenth took at job as a computer science professor at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, and now Casper College is relying on an adjunct.

A tough pitch for tech talent

Eric Trowbridge knows firsthand how Wyoming’s lack of protections for LGBT people—and the state’s spotty reputation when it comes to discrimination—makes it hard to recruit tech talent.

Eric Trowbridge, CEO, Array School of Design and Technology

Trowbridge was born and raised in Cheyenne, but he moved out of state after graduating from Central High School. He ended up landing a job at Apple, and worked for the tech giant for more than a decade in Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago.

When Trowbridge moved back to Cheyenne in 2014, he helped launch the Array School of Design and Technology, Wyoming’s first private accelerated technology and design school. He hoped to encourage some of his former colleagues from Apple to help out.

“We were making a short list of people who could come in and run Array,” Trowbridge said. “There was this one guy from New York who was a trainer with me at Apple and just a phenomenal individual. I called him up and I said, ‘I think you’d be the perfect candidate to run this school.’ And one of the first questions that came out of his mouth was: ‘What’s the LGBT community like in Wyoming?’”

Some of the best minds in the world

Trowbridge equivocated as best he could. But he could not convince the phenomenal individual to come to Wyoming. Nor could Trowbridge get his other former Apple colleagues to come.

While many factors might discourage a well-paid computer whiz to move to Wyoming from a big city, Trowbridge said a statewide LGBT nondiscrimination law would be a straightforward, simple way of eliminating one big hurdle.

“You look at these top tech companies like Apple and Facebook and Google and their nondiscrimination policies, there’s a reason why they have some of the best minds in the world—that’s one of them because some of the best minds in the world are part of the LGBT community” Trowbridge said. “An LGBT nondiscrimination law would send a powerful message to the rest of the country and the world that we want some of the best minds to come to Wyoming.”

Microsoft employees at the London Pride Parade

Every day, people are leaving

Wyoming recently ranked dead last in a survey of city-level LGBT protections. Even though Laramie and Jackson have passed municipal ordinances that say no one can be fired from their job or evicted from their home because of their sexuality or gender identity, even those two towns only scored average compared to cities across the United States. Wyoming’s other largest towns scored far worse.

But LGBT advocates say Wyoming is improving, noting the passage this year of Jackson’s ordinance, a handful of other nonbinding LGBT-friendly resolutions in other towns, and the vocal support of high-level folks like Cheyenne Mayor Marion Orr for a statewide nondiscrimination law.

Meanwhile, droves of people—young people, talented people, educated people—continue to leave Wyoming at an alarming rate. Each departure of someone like Kathryn Lenth is an obstacle for Wyoming to overcome in its effort to diversify and develop its economy. A statewide LGBT nondiscrimination law would help stop the brain drain.

“Every day, people are leaving Wyoming,” Trowbridge said. “Every day, people, young adults are calling other places at home. So this is not something we should [be like], ‘Ah, over time it’s gonna take …’ We need to do it now.”

Computer scientist Kathryn Lenth was happy to make Casper home, until she and her partner, Kristen, realized Wyoming might not be the best place for LGBT people to live. Now Kathryn is training the tech workforce of tomorrow ... in Utah.