Growing up in a cult-like Pentecostal church in Central Virginia, Chelsea Savage has overcome a lot to get where she is today. A single mother, trained nurse and advocate with additional degrees in philosophy and health administration, and an out lesbian, Savage is hoping her storied life will be enough to get her to the 73rd District race in the upcoming Democratic Primary and general election later this year.
Her journey started at the age of five; her mother moved her and her family into a strict religious sect out in York County where communal living and the word of God was a way of life. Savage referred to the group as a “non-denominational pentecostal” church that held strict and traditional beliefs. This often manifested by members speaking in tongues, isolation from those not in the church, and living as if life hadn’t changed much from the 1700s.
“Some would characterize it as a cult… We dressed in long, frilly dresses and had our hair up in buns,” she said in an interview with GayRVA. “If we went to Colonial Williamsburg they thought we were part of the cast.”
As part of the mother’s beliefs, Savage was forced into a homeschool within the church. Savage considers herself a bookworm and a curious spirit so she went to great lengths to teach herself what she could outside of the confines of her pentecostal cage.
“That’s one of the values that I appreciate most about myself, my curiosity,” she said looking back at her frocked-years. In her home life, women were not encouraged to read much or be very educated, but that didn’t stop Savage from seeking knowledge where she could.
“I remember sitting in my trailer and reading chapter after chapter of my biology book until I went all the way through it,” she said. “The only beautiful thing in my life at the time was me going into that little [York County] library.”
After receiving her GED at the age of 15, she began taking courses at a community college before ultimately getting married (to a man 20 years older than her), fulfilling the church core teaching that all women should get married and be “keepers of the home.”
For several years she helped raise his three children and gave birth to a daughter, Victoria. Eventually, she ended the marriage, having realized she did not have feelings for her husband or feelings for men in general.
“I had this dream, ‘what would it be like to not be married?’… When I realized I wouldn’t be struck dead by God [for divorcing him], I was gone.”
Oddly enough it was from her husband that she got her first glimpse at LGBTQ life – he had washed out in a near by trailer park which is how he ended up in the church in the first place. He’d tell stories to Savage about his first wife, a bi-sexual drug addict, and that’s when the pentecostal girl first heard about people of the same-sex being together physically.
“That sounded pretty awesome, yea know, but I couldn’t say that out loud.” she said, remembering her days trapped by her faith. “Being a lesbian was a club I wanted to be part of, but I couldn’t figure it out. Kind of like growing up in the old Little House on the Prairie dresses, I would have loved to wear fashionable clothes, but that would never happen.”
But everything eventually happened in steps. After about 20 years she finally left the church with her husband and their children. A few years later she mustered up the courage to divorce. After that she spent a number of years concentrating on school and her child rather than her love life.
“Being happy was a cop out,” she said. “That’s how I was raised. So asking somebody else to help me, be with me, raise my child, that was candy – it was not eating your vegetables… Pleasure was associated with sin.”
But now, years later, with Victoria at VCU and “militantly independent,” she’s found her stride professionally and personally and is ready to take on Virginia’s state house.
She currently works at VCU Health as a Professional Liability Investigator, continuing her almost 20 year career in healthcare. She’s also worked in the legislature for the last 10 years with several nursing related advocacy groups.
“I did a lot of advocating for the health of Virginians and I learned a lot about legislation and how it gets passed and strategy to get it passed,” she said. Her venture into advocacy started when her mentors suggested she get involved and before long she was in leadership roles in groups like the Virginia Nursing Association and the Legislative Coalition of Virginia Nurses.
Ironically, this work has put her face to face with her would-be Republican challenger, John O’Bannon, who’s held the seat since 2001. He also chairs committees at the General Assembly that handle medical legislation AND carries bills that often directly benefit nurses around the state.
His support for nurses has put Savage at odds with some of her conservative colleagues who have long considered O’Bannon the torch bearer for their concerns.
“But he’s not,” she said. “He’s just the one who they decided would carry these healthcare bills… he prides himself as that but he’s left 400,000 people without healthcare.”
The 400,000 people without healthcare is related to the GOP-dominated General Assembly’s refusal to expand Medicaid, a move O’Bannon has personally supported.
While her advocacy had put her in the state house many times of the last decade, her decision to run for office is a bit more recent. She said those around her had asked if and when she’d consider a bid for office for some time so she started attending Emerge Virginia meetings, a group that hopes to recruit more women to run for office.
One meeting took her to the GA and she asked organizers if her sexuality could impact her winning chances, and much to her surprise they told her it could possibly be an asset.
“That’s when I said ‘oh, maybe I can run’,” she said. “I thought people were gonna take one look at me and say ‘she’s gay? Forget this, ew!’”
A week later, Emerge Virginia sent out an email asking for candidates and she jumped at the chance.
She said she’s running her campaign on three points – her work history as a nurse and advocate, being a working single mom, and being an out lesbian willing to fight for equality.
“I’m the one bringing it up, every single freak’n time,” she said about her sexuality when she’s canvassing for votes on the street. “That is a main platform in my campaign, being gay, and I say it all the time.”
Savage also pointed to the political climate at the federal level, with President Donald Trump at the helm, as one of her reasons to run. Trump’s documented history of misogynistic comments are part of her laundry list of reasons why she opposes him and why she feels now is the time for more women to step up.
“I’m not letting his misogyny define me, define my daughter or define my community,” Savage said. “That’s why women have to step up now. We have to.”
And she thinks her message is working; though she faces a unique primary caucus 4/29 against three other democrats: William Coleman, Debra Rodman and Sarah Smith.
But her status as a member of the LGBTQ community puts her in a rare group this year as all 100 Delegate seats are up for grabs. She’s joined by Danica Roem, an openly transgender woman who is running against Del. Bob Marshall for the 13th District, and Kelly DeLucia, a Yorktown lesbian running for the 93rd district seat. Then there’s Dawn Adams running for the 68th district and Ben Hixon in the 30th.
“We’re just regular folks,” Savage said of herself and her fellow members of the LGBTQ community vying for political power this year. “We need to get rid of that good old boys club that has their archaic laws and ideas about religion and what our society should be.”
“They have no place in the society that Virginia is right now,” she said. “I’m going to break it up.”
The first hurdle for Savage happens April 29th from 10-2 at Glenn Allen Cultural Arts Center where a caucus will be held. Early voting opens Monday 24th from 6-8 p at Glenn Allen library – all residents of the 73rd district are allowed to vote.