As It Happens·Q&A

Remembering Robina Asti, 99-year-old pilot, WW II veteran and transgender icon

Robina Asti, a Second World War veteran and mutual fund executive, successfully fought to receive survivor's benefits after she lost her husband in 2012. She died peacefully in her sleep on March 12 in San Diego at the age of 99.

Asti successfully fought for survivor's benefits for transgender people after losing her husband 

Dru Levasseur, left, is the attorney who ran Lambda Legal's transgender rights practice when Robina Asti, right, brought her case to them. Asti died on March 12 at the age of 99. (Submitted by Dru Levasseur)

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Dru Levasseur will never forget the day he met Robina Asti. 

It was 2012. He was a lawyer for Lambda Legal's Transgender Rights Project. She was a 92-year-old widow furious that she'd been denied survivor's benefits just because she was transgender.

"That changed my life as a transgender person, just meeting somebody her age," Levasseur said. "It just impacted me so deeply. It just made me realize that I could grow to be that old."

Levasseur took on Asti's case. Not only did she receive her benefits, but her challenge prompted the Social Security Administration to change its policy regarding transgender spouses. 

After that, Asti became outspoken on trans issues, marching in Pride parades and speaking to LGBTQ audiences about her life. In 2019, she and her grandson founded the Cloud Dancers Foundation to advocate for older transgender people. 

She died peacefully in her sleep on March 12 in San Diego at the age of 99, her family told 

Asti was a Second World War veteran, a commercial pilot, a mutual fund executive, a mother, a grandmother, and an inspiration to a generation of young trans people like Levasseur. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

The way you met her involved this legal case…. What were you able to do for her?

She came into our offices. And she had, for 30 years, not been out as transgender in the world. She was just living her life as a woman.

But when she was denied her survivor benefits with the Social Security Administration, she Googled "LGBT" and found our organization and marched into our office on Wall Street in New York and said, "This this is not fair." 

It was very powerful. She had a beautiful romance with her husband, Norwood [Patton] for many years. They were married in an airplane hangar, and she tells the story in [Flying Solo], a short [documentary about her life] that has won international awards. 

When he passed away, she was dealing as a widow and grieving. And the idea that the government that she served as a veteran would say: "Your marriage was not valid because we do not see you as a woman" — she was not going to take that sitting down.

So we brought an administrative claim on her behalf. And she was not the only transgender person who was experiencing those barriers to survivor benefits. And we filed a case and then we waited, and we didn't hear from them for quite a while. And it was actually on Valentine's Day [2014] that she called our office and said the money appeared in her bank account and she believed that it was Norwood sending her a message. 

She wasn't an activist. She said that in many places. Robina Asti maintained that that wasn't her intention. But what did she come to symbolize in the LGBTQ community and amongst transgender people?

I think she symbolized hope. I mean her legacy foundation, Cloud Dancers, is to basically give wishes to LGBTQ people.

And her message [was] don't give up hope. People might be confused and they might not understand you, but people still love you. And I think that a lot of us LGBTQ+ people really desperately needed to hear that from someone who was our parents', our grandparents', our great-grandparents' age. The symbolism of having somebody in their 90s who is like you, telling you that you can go on, and to trust in the love that they once had for you — I mean, she was parenting many generations of queer and trans kids, especially.

She came into our office to speak and I remember looking at a room of 40 people and seeing the young trans people in the room sobbing. And I understood their tears because … they haven't had that experience from maybe their families, that acceptance and that hope. And Robina gave that hope to all of us.

Levasseur, left, says Asti, right, started as his client but became a dear friend. (Submitted by Dru Levasseur)

She said [to transgender people in a 2016 TedX interview] that "they still love you" but they are "awestruck" by the phenomenon of you. I mean, what does that say to so many of those young people you just mentioned?

I know that Robina was aware of the very, very high rates of suicide and violence against LGBTQ+ people, particularly trans people, and particularly trans people of colour. And I think that what she was saying is that the world might not understand you, especially even your family, at the time when you need the most. That's the time when they're grappling with understanding. And so a lot of people, you know, are alone in their experience. And what she was saying is that you're not alone, and you can't give up hope and you have to allow people to have their own process of understanding.

We all have a jump start. When we're young, LGBTQ+ people, we understand that we're different. So [in] our moment of coming out, we want everybody to be celebrating along with us. But often, people around us need their own time to process and understand. So Robina really filled in those gaps.

She meant so much to so many people. But what did she mean to you personally?

Well, gosh. She was my client and I was so happy to represent her and to fight on her behalf. I didn't think she was going to be teaching me so much.

For me, I think it brought up ... those years where I felt very alone and isolated in my own identity coming out, where the people needed some time around me to process. And I didn't get to tell my grandparents who I am as a trans person. And so it's almost like I got to have a trans grandparent through her. And she accepted me and she understood me. And that was such an amazing gift.

I understand she also bonded with your family over some other painful experiences.

After we had had the relationship of me being a lawyer and she was a client, we kept in touch. 

Several years later, my family experienced a tragic loss. My partner's only son, and my step-son, was murdered at 17. And so that just changed our whole lives. And Robina had lost her nine-year-old son in an accident.... That was what prompted her to realize she was trans and take those steps.

There were very few people in my life who really understood the grief of the loss of a child. And she was so unbelievably supportive of my partner and I and our whole family, and just giving us that understanding and that connection. So it was a very powerful bond that grew on many different levels. And she's been a tremendous part of my extended family since — and she will continue to be. 

So she was a very dear friend. She was a symbol. She was a mother. She was also a pilot, an extraordinary pilot. She loved to fly solo and was flying right into her 90s.... How much did flying matter to her?

I think it was her lifelong passion. 

She learned how to fly when she was a teenager, and signed up for the war and she flew planes over the Pacific. And she tells these stories about the point you get on your way over the ocean, [the] point of no return. And she talks about having to make decisions that were life or death and staying calm.

And that's just how she navigated her life. And she would just stay in the moment and just take it as they came. And I think that it was all from her training as a pilot.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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