The Day – New London therapist hopes public education will raise acceptance, understanding

Colorful butterflies decorate the walls, windows and logo of Chevelle Moss-Savage’s HEAL Consulting therapy office in New London not just because they are cheery for clients going through tough times.

Everything in Moss-Savage’s Dewart Building space at 300 State St. is purposeful. 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, nonbinary they/them or zir/zirs and one with, “Ask me.”

The butterflies go back to her first post-graduate school job as a substance abuse counselor in her hometown of Richmond, Va. Her clients were “Miss Chevelle’s butterflies.”

“Think about what the butterflies navigate,” Moss-Savage said. “You go through the muck and mire of being in a cocoon, right, and you go through all of that. And that’s the work you’re doing from a mental health standpoint. And then you will eventually blossom as this beautiful butterfly. You come in one way as a caterpillar, and then you evolve and emerge as a butterfly.”

With HEAL — Helping Everyone Accept and Adapt to Life — Moss-Savage offers counseling for adults 18 and up, with most of her clients in their 30s and 40s. She also is a therapist and a teacher at the Eugene O’Neill National Theater Institute in Waterford.

Moss-Savage also applies her butterfly concept to her own outlook. As a Black lesbian therapist and LGBTQIA+ community activist, Moss-Savage said she must remain optimistic about American society and all civilization.

“I couldn’t maintain this job if I didn’t have hope,” Moss-Savage said. “I became a therapist, because I believe in the inherent good of all people, that deep down, there is something in you that is good. So, I believe we are going to evolve as a people. There’s no way I could survive this world if I didn’t believe that.”

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 childcare program starting at age 13. She learned community service in her grandmother’s big garden that fed the neighborhood. As an adult, she learned to become “my authentic self.”

In high school, friends would say: “You’re so easy to talk to. Why is that? I just really enjoy 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 age 22. Moss-Savage still laughs at the surprising reaction from her conservative grandmother: “Well, thank God. I was wondering if you could have children. You’re so old.”

A single mother, Moss-Savage worked in a group home and later ran a support program for displaced homemakers at J. Sergeant Reynolds Community College in Richmond and took classes for her bachelor’s degree.

She met her spouse at the 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 held a ceremony in October.

Her spouse 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 spouse.”

She said she is still saddened that her brother doesn’t totally accept her marriage but her son’s love has never wavered, and she has undying support from “chosen family.”

Moss-Savage secured an internship for her master’s degree at Virginia State University, and returned to work there after getting married and graduating with her master’s degree from Lincoln College.

An exchange with a student convinced Moss-Savage to be “out” as a married lesbian or queer person to more than just university leaders. The female student, who had known the counselor as an intern, grew puzzled when she saw Moss-Savage now had a hyphenated last name.

Moss-Savage showed the student a photo of her spouse and the student beamed. “Oh my God, I have to meet her! I don’t have anybody that looks like me. You’re here, and you’re a therapist, and I know that I can go up, and there’s room for me and there’s a future,” Moss Savage recalled.

Moss-Savage told her spouse 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 loss could include a relationship, a job, a pet, loss of a body part or loss of free will.

“So, that’s my new thing,” Moss-Savage said. “In 2015, I rebranded to helping everyone accept and adapt to life, all encompassing, all the things you have 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 the Historically Black College and University ceased, including the Rainbow Soul student group Moss-Savage co-advised.

“I didn’t realize it would happen so nearly,” he said. Abdullah asked Moss-Savage to come back as a consultant for one year.

One year turned into four, as Moss-Savage led the university’s effort to become the first HBCU to hold a lavender graduation — recognizing achievements of LGBTQIA+ students — first to have gender inclusive bathrooms and 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 gone, Virginia State University hired its first director of diversity, inclusion and belonging.

President Abdullah promised Moss-Savage’s work at the university will be lasting. This year’s lavender graduation ceremony May 2 had a record 12 student participants. Abdullah honored Moss-Savage in his remarks.

“Her leaving was almost an ultimatum to 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 well established in New London, although still meeting with clients remotely due to COVID-19, Moss-Savage is spreading her message of inclusion, affirmation of one’s authentic self and community service.

She joined New London Rotary as the only Black member at the time. She told leaders if they did not want the club to die out, it had to reflect the city’s makeup. Moss-Savage provided inclusion training for the Groton school system and Fitch High School staff.

She stresses that LGBTQIA+ people are not “choosing a lifestyle” but are living their “authentic identity.” Cisgender, Moss-Savage said, means a person’s brain matches that person’s body parts. As children grow, they might come to realize their true identities do not match their bodies.

“It’s not a choice who I love,” Moss-Savage said. “If I were to choose something, why would I choose not being able to have public displays of affection without fear of being harmed? Why would I choose to not be able to openly talk about my spouse? Why would I choose to have to check in with my spouse and say, ‘Can they use your name in the paper?,’ without fear of blowback from someone else? It’s so much easier to just be straight.”

Moss-Savage is Interim President of OutCT, an advocacy group for the LGBTQIA+ community. The group has a new office in the Dewart Building and hosts programs to help the region be welcoming to people with varying identities and backgrounds.

OutCT hosted its inaugural daylong mental health and wellness 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, Three Rivers director of student activities and an OutCT board member, called the symposium Moss-Savage’s brainchild. More than 100 Three Rivers faculty, staff and students attended, along with community members. OutCT hopes to make it an annual event.

“I’m hoping with Chevelle’s leadership, we will be able to do more community events that give back to southeastern Connecticut,” Ziegler said, “more events that give back to the LGBTQIA+ community and events that affect our community.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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