Andrew Palumbo and Kate Mainor-Goodness, who nominated Palumbo for the 2017 Leadership Award of Advocates in Action Rhode Island ---Anne Peters Photo
By Gina Macris
Even as he struggled internally with an identity mismatched to his body, Andrew Palumbo always has been able to bring out the best in others.
So say a chorus of his supporters, who cheered him on as he received the 2017 Leadership Award of Advocates in Action Rhode Island during the organization’s 22nd annual empowerment conference Oct. 26, a day-long event at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Warwick. Advocates in Action is a non-profit organization focused on educating individuals with developmental decisions to take more control of their lives and advocate for themselves and others.
After the award ceremony, Palumbo, 35, gave a presentation on his ten-year journey from woman to man. He faced the same kinds of hurdles – bullying and rejection - as other transgender persons awakening to their true selves. And his challenges on the way were compounded by an intellectual disability.
However, say his friends, Palumbo is gifted at forming nurturing relationships with other people.
The suicide rate among transgender people is 31 percent, Palumbo said. When he was younger, he too wanted to kill himself, but through therapy, he said, he learned to “be strong and to be happy with who you are” and not to be affected “by what other people think.”
Palumbo elaborated during a brief interview after his talk. He said he drew strength from meeting “other people like myself.” He said he “was able to do research and be happy with who I am.”
Palumbo said he started telling people to call him “Andrew,” about 15 years ago, when he still inhabited a woman’s body. The reaction ran the gamut, Palumbo said, but “mostly I had people who supported me.”
As he explained to an audience of about 25, the correct pronoun is very important to him. “When people weren’t calling me ‘he’, that hurt a lot,” he said.
Palumbo had gender reassignment surgery in January, 2012, after being rejected by two Rhode Island doctors, one of whom cited his disability as a reason. Finally, he passed a psychological screening and was accepted for surgery in Massachusetts.
“I had to advocate for myself to get the surgery,” Palumbo said. He got help from support groups and friends,” he said.
Palumbo’s confidence began to soar about 18 months ago, when he moved into a new shared living arrangement.
After a previous shared living arrangement with a host family in a private home had soured for Palumbo, Gerri Fox, his state social worker – and friend, Fox is quick to add – reached out to a couple both she and Palumbo knew from church, Kelly and Kate Mainor-Goodness.
All four attend St. Therese Old Catholic Church in West Warwick, which is not affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church but part of the Diocese of New England in the Independent Catholic Churches of America. The church emphasizes inclusion, welcoming individuals with developmental disabilities and same-sex couples.
Like Fox, both Kelly and Kate Mainor-Goodness are social workers by profession, and the three at one time even worked for the same state agency – the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth and Families. Fox now works for the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals, which funds Palumbo’s support services.
Kelly Mainor-Goodness said she and Kate “jumped in with both feet” to shared living with Palumbo and haven’t regretted a minute of it. He has thrived under their roof, the couple said, or as Kelly put it, “he’s just exploded.”
About the same time he moved into the Mainor-Goodness home, Palumbo began learning about ceramics at The Little Clay Studio, a cooperative sponsored by ReFocus, a provider of developmental disability services.
In learning both the technical and creative aspects of the craft, Palumbo designed and produced a black and white glazed plaque as a sign for an “all gender bathroom” which caught the attention of his teacher, Jessica Schlachter. Another plaque depicted a black eye – a symbol of the bullying Palumbo endured on his journey.
In July, as he explained his creations, Palumbo shared his own story with others in the studio.
Showing a Powerpoint slide of the all-gender bathroom sign during his presentation at the Crowne Plaza, Palumbo said, “Does it really matter what bathroom you use?” He and Schlachter said one restaurant has ordered duplicates of the plaque for its restrooms.
Palumbo is compensated for the creative and production aspects of his work at The Little Clay Studio, which sells ceramics to retail outlets, Schlachter said. Palumbo also has worked as a bagger in his neighborhood Stop & Shop supermarket in Warwick for the past 15 years.
During his presentation, Palumbo matter-of-factly ticked off a list of questions not to ask a transgender person, in addition to the one about bathrooms:
- What’s your real name?
- What do you have down there?
- Are you a real man/woman?
If a transgender person “wants you to know , they will tell you,” Palumbo said.
“Call people by the name they want,” he said. “Call them by the right pronoun. Be there for them. Be a friend.”
Dan Moriarty, a clinical social worker, told Palumbo he was “always a positive leader,” even when he must have been struggling internally. “I always thought of you as Andrew,” Moriarty said.
Moriarty said he got to know Palumbo years before his surgery, at the Trudeau Center, a developmental disability service agency, where he once worked.
Perhaps because of his history, said Schlachter, Palumbo’s ceramics teacher, “he can tell you’re having a rough time before you even know you’re having a rough time.”
Palumbo’s kind touch and a simple query – “how are you feeling today? ” can be therapeutic for those around him, Schlachter and Kelly Mainor-Goodness agreed.
“I’m proud every day to have a front-row seat to this,” Mainor-Goodness said of the continuing empowerment of Andrew Palumbo. She and Kate led the audience in giving Palumbo a standing ovation.