New London therapist hopes public education will increase acceptance and understanding
Chevelle Moss-Savage makes a point during the panel discussion at Piece of Mind, OutCT’s inaugural LGBTQIA+ mental health and wellbeing symposium on Friday, April 29, 2022 at Three River Community College in Norwich. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Colorful butterflies adorn the walls, windows and logo of Chevelle Moss-Savage’s HEAL Consulting therapy office in New London, not just because they’re joyful for clients going through tough times.
Everything about Moss-Savage’s Dewart Building space at 300 State St. is useful. The chairs are comfortable for all body types. A side entrance offers more privacy. The lobby table has jars with buttons with different pronouns people might prefer – he/him, she/her, they/them non-binary or zir/zirs and one with “Ask me”.
The butterflies date back to her first graduate job as an addiction counselor in her hometown of Richmond, Virginia. Her customers were “Miss Chevelle’s Butterflies.”
“Think about butterflies sailing,” Moss-Savage said. “You go through the mud and the mud of being in a cocoon, okay, and you go through all of that. And that’s the work you do from a mental health perspective. And then you end up blooming like this beautiful butterfly. You kinda come in as a caterpillar and then evolve and emerge as a butterfly.
With HEAL – Helping Everyone Accept and Adjust to Life – Moss-Savage offers counseling for adults 18 and older, with most of its clients in their 30s and 40s. She is also a therapist and teacher at the Eugene O’Neill National Theater Institute in Waterford.
Moss-Savage also applies his butterfly concept to his own vision. As a black lesbian therapist and activist for the LGBTQIA+ community, Moss-Savage said she should remain optimistic about American society and all of civilization.
“I couldn’t keep this job if I didn’t have hope,” Moss-Savage said. “I became a therapist because I believe in the inherent goodness of everyone, that deep down there is something good in oneself. So I believe we will evolve as a people. There’s no way I could survive in this world if I didn’t believe in it.
Moss-Savage, 52, grew up in Richmond, Va., where she lived for 48 years. She was active in a black church, working in the church’s childcare program from the age of 13. She learned community service in her grandmother’s large garden that supplied the neighborhood. As an adult, she learned to become “my authentic self”.
In high school, his friends would say, “You’re so easy to talk to. Why? I really like talking to you.” After starting college with a major in business administration, she turned to marketing to work more closely with people, and eventually to human services.
Life intervened when she became pregnant at 22. Moss-Savage still laughs at his conservative grandmother’s surprising reaction: “Well, thank goodness. I was wondering if you could have kids. You’re so old.”
A single mother, Moss-Savage worked in a group home and later ran a support program for displaced housewives at J. Sergeant Reynolds Community College in Richmond and took classes for her bachelor’s degree.
She met her partner in college in 2002 and fell in love. Gay marriage was illegal in Virginia when they decided to get married in 2012. They married in Washington, DC in August and had a ceremony in October.
His wife asked not to be named in this story.
“The only blood relative I had at my wedding was my son,” Moss-Savage said. “I have a brother who is 10 years younger than me. He does not approve of me being married to a “shehim”. That’s what he called my wife.
She said she was still saddened that her brother did not fully accept her marriage, but her son’s love never wavered and she has the unwavering support of the “chosen family”.
Moss-Savage got an internship for her master’s degree at Virginia State University and returned to work there after getting married and earning her master’s degree at Lincoln College.
An exchange with a student convinced Moss-Savage to be “out” as a married lesbian or queer person to more than university leaders. The student, who had known the counselor as an intern, became puzzled when she saw that Moss-Savage now had a hyphenated surname.
Moss-Savage showed the student a photo of her spouse and the student was beaming. “Oh my God, I gotta meet her! I don’t have anyone like me. You’re here, and you’re a therapist, and I know I can ride, and there’s room for me, and there’s a future,” recalls Moss Savage.
Moss-Savage told his wife she wanted to start her own therapy practice in 2015 and focus on grief and loss, recalling her own struggles with her mother’s sudden death. Her spouse reminded her that the loss could include a relationship, a job, a pet, the loss of a body part, or the loss of agency.
“So this is my new thing,” Moss-Savage said. “In 2015, I rebranded to help everyone accept and adjust to life, encompassing all the things you need to navigate on your wellness journey.”
She left Virginia State University to start her own practice, but not for long.
University President Makola Abdullah said earlier this month that when Moss-Savage left, all her work to advance relations with the LGBTQIA+ community at Historically Black College and University ceased, including the student group Rainbow Soul co-led by Moss-Savage.
“I didn’t realize it would happen so quickly,” he said. Abdullah asked Moss-Savage to return as a consultant for a year.
A year turned into four, as Moss-Savage spearheaded the university’s effort to become the first HBCU to hold a Lavender Degree – recognizing the achievements of LGBTQIA+ students – the first to have bathrooms inclusive and the first to have a pronoun of choice initiative.
In 2020, Moss-Savage moved to Connecticut to join her spouse, who had gotten a job at Connecticut College a year earlier. With Moss-Savage’s departure, Virginia State University has hired its first director of diversity, inclusion, and belonging.
President Abdullah promised that Moss-Savage’s work at the university would be long-lasting. This year’s Lavender graduation ceremony on May 2 had a record 12 student attendees. Abdullah paid tribute to Moss-Savage in his remarks.
“His departure was almost an ultimatum for us to get better,” Abdullah said. “I am, and we are, so proud of her, and we owe her a great debt of gratitude.”
Now firmly established in New London, though still meeting clients remotely due to COVID-19, Moss-Savage spreads its message of inclusion, authentic self-affirmation and community service.
She joined the New London Rotary, as the only black member at the time. She told the leaders that if they didn’t want the club to disappear, it had to reflect the make-up of the town. Moss-Savage provided inclusion training for the Groton school system and Fitch High School staff.
She points out that LGBTQIA+ people do not “choose a lifestyle” but live their “authentic identity”. Cisgender, Moss-Savage said, means that a person’s brain matches that person’s body parts. As children grow, they may realize that their true identity does not match their body.
“It’s not a choice who I love,” Moss-Savage said. “If I had to choose something, why would I choose not being able to publicly show my affection without fear of being hurt? Why would I choose not being able to speak openly about my spouse? Why would I choose having to check to my spouse and say, “Can he use your name in the paper?” without fear of backfire from someone else? It’s so much easier to be straight.
Moss-Savage is the interim president of OutCT, an advocacy group for the LGBTQIA+ community. The group has a new office in the Dewart building and organizes programs to help the area welcome people of varied identities and backgrounds.
OutCT held its first one-day mental health and wellbeing symposium, “Piece of Mind”, at Three Rivers Community College in Norwich on April 29. The event focused on emotional health, spiritual health, social health, physical health, sexual health and mental health.
Alycia Ziegler, director of student activities at Three Rivers and board member of OutCT, called the symposium a Moss-Savage brainchild. Over 100 faculty, staff and students from Three Rivers attended, along with members of the community. OutCT hopes to make this an annual event.
“Hopefully with Chevelle’s leadership, we can host more community events that give back to Southeast Connecticut,” Ziegler said, “more events that give back to the LGBTQIA+ community and events that affect our community.”
OutCT board members, left to right, Kia Baird, Dale Rodgers, Aurora Bowen, Cecil Carter and Chevelle Moss-Savage laugh after posing for a photo on the red carpet during the Oscar Extravaganza of the organization on Sunday, March 27, 2022 at Mystic Luxury Cinemas. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)