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A Remarkable Life: One 95-Year-Old Shares Her Hope For Fellow Trans People
10 May 2016 8:05 AM
Robina Asti is exhausted, but you wouldn't know it as she opens the door to the Upper East Side apartment she's called home since 1965. She's dressed in a green top and tan slacks, her white hair is swept up in barrettes, and two turquoise earrings dangle from her ears — the first pair her late husband, Norwood, ever bought her.
"I'm sorry, I think I overdid it a bit yesterday," Asti says. "But it was just so beautiful out."
Asti got home late Sunday night after six hours in the air over the Hudson Valley. At 95, she still works as a flight instructor and tries to spend every weekend she can piloting planes, much as she has since she was a teenager. She laughs that insurance companies seem to shy away from her these days.
"But you know what? Every morning that I open my eyes is a good day," she reflects.
Much of her nine decades have been spent leading a quiet life of flying and family. She was born in 1921 and grew up in New York City. When the U.S. joined World War II, she signed up for the Navy and served in the Pacific. She married, had children, and was the vice president of a major mutual fund. Then, in 1976, she transitioned from male to female.
At the time, hers was a decision few understood; she faced serious discrimination at work and strained relationships with her children. But soon after, she met the “love of her life,” artist Norwood Patton. The pair would spend decades together before finally getting married in an old airplane hangar in 2004.
“He was a proper man. He always had breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and a martini at 5 o’clock,” she says, smiling. “When he was in the hospital, I even snuck a Coca-Cola bottle full of martinis I mixed for him.”
Her apartment still overflows with Norwood’s art: everything from little sketches to oil paintings, including a beautiful portrait of her. After Patton passed away in 2012, Asti applied for the standard widow benefits from the Social Security Administration. She was shocked and angry when they wrote to tell her that she had been denied because she was not legally a woman at the time of her marriage.
Asti decided to fight back. Since then, she’s been a volunteer and advocate for transgender rights, working with LGBT-advocacy nonprofit organisation Lambda Legal. Ahead, Asti shares her remarkable life story and her advice for young people transitioning today, with Refinery29.
For a lot of young people who are transitioning, it can be really lonely. They may not have the support of their families. What’s the message that you want to share with young trans people? “Whether you’re alone, or you have a family behind you, your family is probably going to reject you. Be prepared for that rejection, and don’t look at it as something permanent. They will say it’s permanent, but it really isn’t.
“They don’t know that you’re the same person, that you haven’t changed. The person that they loved when you were younger, and all the time up until your announcement, that person is still there, it’s you. And they will eventually come around to understand it.
“You have to be very patient and understanding. They are the ones having the most difficult time…When they learn to change their ways of thinking, they will come to love you just as much, and perhaps maybe even more because now they have an understanding that they need to understand things more than they have been.
“Don’t lose patience, no matter what they do. If they throw you out of the house, or kick you out forcibly, go — but don’t close the door. Send a birthday card to your mother, send a card to your father, remember Christmas and New Year's. If you’re Jewish, remember the Jewish holidays. And always, even if you know that they tossed it out or they sent it back to you, they know you sent them a card.
“Those are the little things that what they love about you is always hinging on, and they will gradually become so concerned about you, they will find a way to invite you back. When you go back, do it well, do it openly…You apologise for hurting them — let them have their say about it — but you’ll find that they will open up to you and they will learn to love you, and love you more.
"Have patience and understanding of what it means for them to have lost a son or a daughter, because it’s exhausting. You need to fill that again, and you can fill that. I think that’s what I’ve got to tell them: Have patience, real patience.” When did you first realise that you were Robina? “Well, I never really realised it. I had an extraordinarily good family. I had a wife, Eva; she was quite beautiful, and we had two children [at the time], a girl and a boy. Coca is now 56, and the mother of the two grandsons staying with me here. The other was a boy, Pepe, and when he was 8 and a half, he was killed in an accident.
“He was killed on a snowmobile out in Utah, and that really shook up my life, shook up Eva. It really hurt us tremendously. He died in my daughter’s arms.
“After that, I didn’t know what to do with my life. I never, ever, had entertained the thought of suicide…Even in the midst of the worst sorrow I could get — the death of my son — it never even entered my mind. I knew I had to do something. There was this tremendous urge to change — what, I didn’t know. And then, I don’t know by what means, I came to the fact that I had to change my sex.
“There was no sexual connection with it, there was no drive to think of myself as a woman — it was something that would be [the] furthest thing from my mind that I could ever think that I could be a woman. I never even, ever thought like that. I was male, and I was thoroughly and completely male, never having any homosexual ideas or thoughts or anything like that.
“It turned out that the one thing that I could do — that was impossible to do — would be to change my sex. And that’s where I began to look at it more. Eventually, I involved Eva. She was shocked, of course, but she acquiesced to it. She was a good woman, and is still today a good woman. So she helped me, and indeed, she became my role model. It was gradual.” What year did you transition, and how did your family feel? “The arrangement I made with Eva was that she wanted to have another child. That’s where my daughter Eamonn came in. I told Eva that I wouldn’t do anything until we were sure that she was going to have a good child.
“Eamonn was born in 1976, and I started to take hormones on Valentine’s Day in 1976. After that, I had the sex change operation. I never even considered the common terms for these things at that time — transsexual and so forth. To me, transsexual was the time before the operation, and once you did have the operation, you were now a woman. And that was a great invention! I’ve been so lucky in my life with having these extraordinary inventions in almost seemingly impossible conditions.”
What impact did your transition have on your career and your marriage? “I was a vice president of a mutual fund at the time, and it was a pretty good income I was making. Nobody ever suspected anything, but one day, I decided I just couldn’t do this anymore, so I quit. Everybody was shocked that I quit, but they accepted it. Eventually the word got back that I had changed my sex…
“Fortunately, we were fairly well off. I had managed to make some money, so I started discussing things with Eva…Eventually, we decided that we had to get a divorce. I was living here with her and I decided that I [had] to go. So that’s when I went off to live [by] myself as a woman, alone in the city — another great adventure.
“I came back here to this apartment, and Eva went back to Florida. We are friends. She occasionally calls me and reminisces about the good times that we had. And we did have a really good marriage.”
Where did you go to work afterwards? Did you face discrimination? “Well, I took all of the women’s jobs that there could be [at that time] — the most menial jobs. I became a secretary, I became a housekeeper, I became a salesgirl. I did all of those jobs to get to know women.
“[At the time], my mother lived in Suffern, NY, and I bought her and her husband an apartment there. When I would go to visit her, I would come back [to the city] and I’d go through the bus terminal, and I would get a lot of catcalls and nonsense. I knew that I wasn’t passing as a woman yet. There was trouble [because] people didn’t see me as a woman. Finally, I knew that if I could walk into the bus terminal and not be noticed, then I was a woman. That was my final testing of it.
“Now, I know nobody ever thinks of me as a man. Immediately, I’m a woman. And some of the friends that I’ve had, particularly aviation friends, after I ‘came out’ with all of this and I told them, these friends never even suspected anything. So I knew that I had changed to become a woman thoroughly.”
Was it difficult for your daughters to accept your transition at the time? “With [my younger daughter], Eamonn, there was never any problem, because I was with her at her birth…Eamonn and I were just very attached during all of her life, and she still talks to me when she’s got to make an important decision. She knows that I’ve given her the real cold facts about everything.
“My older daughter is a little different. She shied away from me, and I guess she might have been embarrassed about it…For years, I didn’t see her at all, and I didn’t see my grandson. Now, my grandsons and I are getting more and more entwined. They’re listening to me, they’re consulting with me, they’re talking about their lives.”
How long did it take for you and your older daughter to reconnect? Did you go through a period of not speaking with each other? “Yes, 20 years. Maybe even longer. Then I guess she realised that, you know, she’s got to solve this problem, and then she came to see me. We talked and now we’re growing quite close, and it’s delightful.
“There are a few points that I’d like to talk with her very openly about, including the death of Pepe, because he died in her arms, and what kind of things she had in her mind that I didn’t see and why didn’t I see them. That’s got to be resolved yet, but it will be, I’m convinced. As long as I live, I know that I’ll get it resolved. But she is doing well.”
Did your parents accept you after you transitioned? “I never told my father, because he would never have believed it.”
Did your mother accept who you were? “Oh yes, she did.”
How did you talk about the change with your mother? “My mother had suspected something was wrong between Eva and me…I eventually went and sat down my mother. I told her before I had the operation that I was changing my sex, and she was upset. Her husband, Albert, he was upset. But Albert accepted it more than she did.
“She went off to talk to her priest about it, and she went off to talk to her doctor about it, and they apparently were willing to accept it. So she learned to accept it, and after she did accept it, she and I became very, very close. Closer than we had ever been. She loved that now she had a girl, and it made a difference in her life.
“I loved her more for it, and we did all kinds of nice things. Like, we’d go off shopping on Saturday morning…That’s the kind of relationship we had, and it was really delightful. She knew then about Norwood. She loved Norwood, and thought he was a fine man.
“So, I feel, again, that it only takes love and patience to make it work. And if you are willing to do that, and be very, very patient — because you’re going to get slapped in the face many times before it changes — but when it changes, it’s going to be golden.” Tell us how you first met Norwood, your husband. What did you think when you first laid eyes on him, and what did he think of you? “That’s a favourite subject of mine. It was a bar, it’s gone now, but it was on the corner of 66th Street and Third Avenue. It was really a very upscale bar, and I used to go in there because I knew the piano player, and I lived in the neighbourhood. When I was alone, I would go into the bar basically to meet men.
“I knew the owner, and he was a very artistic man and I became quite well-known in the place. And one night, this man comes into the bar, and he’s very properly dressed, and it was Norwood. He says he has a studio right down the street. We talked a bit and became quite friendly, we went out on a couple of simple dates, and I was beginning to like him. Eventually, we got very close, Norwood and me. His studio was a great place; a studio with a fireplace, and art all around you.
“And I knew I had to tell him [about my transition], and I thought, Dammit, he’s so formal even though he’s an artist…I’m going to lose him. But I knew I had to tell him, and sure enough, I told him. He became so upset that he actually cried, and he left. And I’m dying, I’m thinking, Dammit, did I do this right, what do I do? I can’t call him, I got to leave him alone.
“It was a week later that he came back, and he said he didn’t care. And he was my love for the rest of my life. We had a great relationship.” When did you get married? “We married in 2004…Great, great times, and a great, great man. He had such a lovely attitude about living, and had a humbleness about himself that was — when I think about it, it really is saintly. He never signed any of his paintings — never, ever signed any of them. I was getting him to sign his stuff, but he never was interested in signing anything. He was more interested in the art of it. He was…here, you got me crying.
“I’m the one that had to pull the plug on him, and so that was the end of Norwood on the 1st of June, 2012…I guess I’m next, but I must say that I’ve learned to cope with the fact that he has been a good part of my life and a great part of my life. And indeed I’m enjoying my present life very well — I have no regrets about anything that has happened. I am pleased about that because I don’t think that many people can say that.”
After Norwood died, you discovered that you had been denied widow benefits because the Social Security Administration claimed you were not a woman at the time of your marriage. What happened, and how did you use that experience to become an advocate for other trans people? “I had changed it all — driver’s license, pilot’s license, passport — a long time ago, and I didn’t think much of it anymore. The act was finished. I’m a woman. I’m not going to think of myself as anything but a woman.
“Then I got a letter in the mail after a year of applying [for widow benefits], saying that I was denied because I was not a woman at the time of my marriage, that I was not legally a woman. And that got me mad, and I thought, Boy, I got to do something about this, this is not right. I was thinking that there must be other people like me, and I was fortunate that I was not needing the money, I didn’t need it to live. But I knew at my age, that there are a lot of people living on Social Security who need it. Suppose one of them was denied their Social Security, that is catastrophic.
“I started to look for any kind of legal help where I could get it, and I came across Lambda Legal, and I called them up and they invited me to come down to see them. I call them my four horsemen, because, when I went to see them, they opened up their arms and they really tended to me well. In a relatively short time, they had won the case for getting my Social Security, and got the agents to change their whole attitude about people like me.
“The day that I got it was Valentine’s Day. I looked into this bank account where I had my Social Security checks coming, and it bloomed. I looked out, and said, ‘Thank you, Norwood!’”
Have you ever been afraid in your life? “Being a pilot I think — if you’re a real pilot, fear doesn’t enter your life because, if you’re flying an airplane with a smoking engine or a single engine and that engine disappears on you, you got to focus on one thing: flying that airplane until it has stopped. That is what you must do. There’s no room for panic, and a good pilot has to know this.” What are the lessons that you’ve applied to these other moments in your life outside of flying? “I don’t know how I’m alive, frankly. I got shot at in airplanes, the Japanese tried to do a good job at killing me [in World War II]. I’ve had 17 forced landings while flying, and I’ve always managed to get the airplane on the ground with minimum damage.
“I’ve decided that humans have to do this: You must live as long as you can live, no matter what the conditions are. You must live. So no, I don’t have any fears about living.”
That’s wonderful advice. “I’m pleased with it, because I know that it’s not true for a lot of people. But I find so many great things in humans.
“When I go to the doctor, I go to Veterans [Affairs] because I don’t really need doctors. I have no prescriptions; I have nothing wrong with me. Recently, I did a nucleus stress test, and I was able to witness the heart valves going bom bom, bom bom. I was thinking, They’ve been going and doing that before I was born. We as men have never been able to make a machine that could last that long, in perfect rhythm and never need service. [The heart] doesn’t need any help, it just does it by itself, constantly…We’re blessed.” Do you have any other advice for young women? “Start living to be humble. That’s difficult. My example for that is Norwood. It is such a great thing to be humble that none of us really appreciate it today. It is so nice to see somebody who is truly humble, not bragging all the time, not saying, ‘What a great person I am.’ I think women — young women — are spending too much time with selfies and things like that.
“You will not find me in many pictures, because I was the one taking them. I enjoyed taking pictures and I ended up being in them. I think that women are beautiful, and you should look for the beauty in yourself…that is what I see as being humble. You got all of these great things going on inside you that makes up you, and every bit of it is important, and it’s only here for a length of time and then you got to go…I think life is so good, I just can’t not feel strongly about that all the time.”
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.