By Claire Daly on Jun 21, 2021
“Ping! I pushed send on the most important email of my life. There was no going back.”
Sam Nelson describes the moment her world changed forever, or rather as she tells it, the moment her two worlds came together. Her email, sent back in 2005, told hundreds of colleagues that the man they had previously worked side by side with on a platform in the North Sea would now be living as a trans woman.
“I was living two lives,” she says. “My job meant I could be a man offshore and a woman onshore.”
But in the end, it all became too much.
“I had no friends,” she says quietly, describing how she isolated herself over the fear of her secret being uncovered.
Celebrating Pride month at home in London’s June sunshine, a confident and upbeat Sam seems a world away from the person she is describing. Inside, her living-room shelves glint with awards for promoting diversity and equality in the UK and around the world.
Born in a mining village in the north-east of England and trained as an engineer, Sam started her career with Shell in the 1990s maintaining instruments on the now decommissioned Brent Bravo, a huge oil and gas platform in the North Sea. After leaving Shell in 1999, she transitioned from a man to a woman.
By the time she rejoined Shell in 2020, she had risen through the ranks to be an Offshore Installation Manager (OIM), in charge of running a platform from top to bottom.
Sam has visited nearly every offshore Shell facility, working in remote locations sometimes for months at a time, dealing with freezing seas in Kashagan, Kazakhstan and hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico.
“I’d cried with a colleague as I broke the news that his wife had died, celebrated births and weddings, and mourned pets. We supported each other through the best and worst of times,” she says.
Sam credits her experiences offshore with giving her the resilience to face the future as a trans woman. And she gives thanks to the former colleague who helped her navigate her worst fears.
“An ally changed the course of my life. She didn’t know exactly how I felt – she didn’t need to. Just listening helped,” she says. “Through my upbringing, I truly believed I was going to lose everything once everyone knew. But a lot of the negativity was inside myself.”
Minutes after Sam sent the email, messages flooded in. “Why didn’t you think we would support you when you supported us?” one said.
At times people do treat her differently: “Some people question my decisions more as a trans woman, some just don’t know how to deal with me. But I can honestly say 99% of people are great,” she says.
For Sam the fusion of her two lives has created a force of energy that propels her to campaign for LGBTQ+ rights, diversity and the importance of allyship in workplaces around the world.
“Sometimes we all just need to change a bit to accommodate each other,” she says, giving the example of offshore facilities. “Now these are designed from scratch to be more inclusive – from laundry to changing facilities, and multi-faith rooms.”
And it can be the little things, like a Pride flag on a manager’s desk, that can signal support and give confidence to someone, she says.
Having spent COVID-19 lockdown in London, Sam is getting ready to travel again, swapping walks by the Thames for the East China Sea, where she will join the construction of a new platform.
Any thoughts for the road?
“If I could go back and speak to the former me, I would say, don’t let fear overcome you and rule your life.”
Read more about diversity at Shell