“You feel as though you’re living a double life, and you get angry as a result of that”
Stephie Elms didn’t realise she was trans until she was 47. “I feel almost fraudulent,” she laughs, “because I didn’t have thirty years of feeling that I was in the wrong body. I was just unhappy but couldn’t put my finger on why. Now I feel genuinely happier than I have ever felt.”
The story for Stephie begins in the Southeast of England, in a working-class family with an upbringing that she describes as “the standard heteronormative boy’s experience”. Now she lives in Switzerland – a fact she is grateful for, given how quick and supportive the Swiss healthcare system was to help her transition – working for Novartis as the Head of Diversity and Equality for Disability.
Stephie has been with the company since leaving school, working for the first third of her career in England around manufacturing and quality assurance before moving to Switzerland, Singapore, Germany, and back to Switzerland to support the company’s IT. Now, she’s Head of the Disability section of the company’s DEI team. “I hit 50 and asked myself what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I realised I needed to do something I was passionate about, and that was working directly with people.”
A Diversity Champion whilst in Singapore, going back to DEI resonated strongly with Stephie, and she took a role working with the company’s talent engagement team. “Novartis is always looking to improve our recruitment process, for people with disabilities, for example, to make it more inclusive.” Now, Stephie’s work covers planning the diversity and equity programmes for disability, and she’s excited that some of these programmes are on the cusp of launch. “I’m super happy with my role, and I love it. I meet with great people, and I’m able also to use my time to support LGBTQIA people as well as those with disabilities at the company.”
Coming out was not always easy, though. “You feel as though you’re living a double life, and you get angry as a result of that.” Stephie is very candid about the experience – her first marriage struggled under the strain of the challenge of this double life before Stephie ultimately split from her ex-wife just before Covid hit. “Suddenly, it’s the middle of a pandemic, and you don’t see anyone for a year.”
It was hard, Stephie says, but she got through it, and now on the other side, is happier than she’s ever been. “I had been open with my ex-wife since I first realised I felt this way. We had a friend who transitioned about a decade ago, and I got in contact with them to say, ‘I’m having these feelings, can you relate?’” Stephie felt she had to do something about it or risk being unhappy for the rest of her life. She began transitioning at home, “but when I went out the door, I had to be ‘him’ again. It was difficult, and I probably wasn’t very pleasant to be around.”
Stephie began going to counselling to explore her feelings, which led her to the GP to access healthcare to support her transition. This meant she needed to start coming out to those around her, and allies were instrumental in helping her with this. “With the support of allies at Novartis, I came out and was greatly looked after.”
The Head of DEI in Switzerland was very helpful, and the Pride Employee Resource Group (ERG) enabled Stephie to meet people who would, in turn guide her through the steps on her journey. “In the end, I think I sent an email to people I had worked with over the last 30 years; I had come out to probably a few hundred colleagues at work.” Where she had worried about being rejected, getting hate or being fired, none of it came true. Instead, the opposite happened.
“It was just before the start of Trans Awareness Week, and so I went to the company’s campus in Basel for the first time as Stephie and joined the global webcast celebrating the week. The Global Head of DEI came and sat with her and supported her throughout.
It also made Stephie realise she needed to end the “double life”. If she was going to come out, it would be to everyone. Family came next; Stephie’s sister has been supportive since day one, and her parents, although they needed time to adjust, are increasingly accepting. They speak weekly, and Stephie will return to the UK soon to see them in person again. The double life was over: Stephie was Stephie, and everyone that mattered knew. She immersed herself in her work, trans spaces, and set about figuring out what the future held for her.
“The trans community is not easy to find,” Stephie reflects. “When I look at a lot of the trans people I know, it’s through spaces like Twitter. However, with the way Twitter is going, it’s not safe to be as open or visible on the platform anymore, and we’re losing what were otherwise safe spaces.”
Through these spaces, Stephie met her current fiancé, Ellen, and the pair now live together in Switzerland. “We need those safe spaces, especially as the onslaught against trans people continues. I don’t think of myself as a danger to society, but when you constantly hear this, it wears you down. Safe spaces, allies, being able to come to work and be yourself are all vitally important to ensuring that trans people can exist happily.”
DIVA magazine celebrates 29 years in print in 2023. If you like what we do, then get behind LGBTQIA media and keep us going for another generation. Your support is invaluable.