In the Navy during World War II, Robert Astey flew combat missions, and later became a commercial pilot, a mutual fund senior vice president, as well as a husband and father to three children.
Then at age 55 he began a transition to living as a woman, renamed Robina Asti, and was soon legally recognized as female. Today, at age 93, after a “glorious romance” with a the husband she met in 1980, she has become something else – a trailblazer, having won a victory that makes it much easier for transgender spouses to get Social Security survivor benefits.
The Naval lieutenant (who still pilots aircraft) says she never set out to be a pioneer. But that’s how she’s been hailed by the legal team that helped Asti launch the challenge to win her husband Norwood Patton’s survivor benefits that she believed were rightfully hers following his death in 2012.
“She was a war veteran, and she’s been living her life and has been recognized as a woman for over 38 years. For the federal government to say, ‘You are not legally female’ was just so insulting at a time when she was already grieving the loss of her husband,” says Dru Levasseur, national director of the Transgender Rights Project for Lambda Legal, which took up Asti’s case in June 2013.
Adding to Asti’s argument: Her legal documents – from her Social Security card, to her passport, to her federal taxes, to her pilot’s license – had long reflected her legal status as female. Even so, none of it was enough to convince the Social Security Administration, which originally denied her survivor’s benefits because the agency claimed she was male at the time the couple wed in 2004.
As Robert, she had been married to a woman until, following a son’s death in 1975, Asti struggled, divorced, and at age 55 began living as a woman while taking legal steps to be recognized as one. She met Patton, a 65-year-old artist, four years later. Together for 32 years, she and Patton “had an absolutely delightful life,” says Asti.
Indeed, Asti’s case and legal paperwork allowed Lambda Legal to document the harm caused by rejections based upon inconsistent policies regarding gender identity and marriage benefits.
“We found this to be a good opportunity to really raise this issue,” says Levasseur, “and because of her case, the federal government and Social Security changed its policy.” Before, applications were subject to automatic review; now that is no longer the case.
It’s also given Asti, who describes herself as a private person, added purpose in a long life where she’s quietly led by example.
“I want to be able to inspire people,” she says, “to know that the world doesn’t end when they change their sex.”