Robina Asti, the transgender woman who flew missions as a pilot in World War II before transitioning in the 1970s, passed away peacefully in her sleep on Friday, March 12, according to a statement from her caretaker and family given to Out. Recognized as a 2020 Out 100 honoree, Asti became an activist in her 90s, setting a precedent that rewrote the government’s policy for transgender widow benefits and creating the Cloud Dancers Foundation to support the “invisible” members of the LGBTQ+ community. Asti would have turned 100 years old on April 7.
“Robina Asti lived her life fully and in vivid color,” her daughter, Coca Astey, tells Out. “The kid from New York grew up to chase rainbows, hurricanes, and travel across purple mountains as an aviator. She worked with artists and political leaders and as an activist for the LGBTQ+ community.”
Asti spoke at length with Out last year, revealing an incredible life of bravery, family, and activism. She was born in 1921, and experienced gender dysphoria as a child and an adult. Asti lived during a time when science accepted only a binary construct of gender, though, so she was left with few answers to the conflicting emotions she was experiencing.
“Robina embodied the human spirit,” grandson Erik Hummell tells Out, explaining he and Asti cofounded the Cloud Dancers Foundation “to make the invisible feel visible and to encourage everyone to embrace one's authentic self to live a full life.”
As a young pilot during World War II, Asti was first sent to Midway Island not long after it was attacked in the pivotal naval battle that turned the tide of the war in the Pacific Theater. Once there, she flew the famed Catalina PBY “flying boats” on reconnaissance missions searching for Japanese warships. She also flew fighter planes, and the Navy eventually promoted her to test pilot, a demanding and dangerous job reserved for only the best aviators.
Following her service to the country, Asti chose the same path of marriage and family like many of those returning from war, although waiting much longer than most to marry, not tying the knot until age 40.
“I enjoyed my wife and being a full father to my two children with all the lack of sleep and predicaments kids can get themselves into,” Asti told Out last year. “It was fun. We did everything a family of four and two dogs would do together.”
But the unexpected passing of her 9-year-old son proved a pivotal moment in her life, bringing to the surface all the conflicting and unresolved issues of identity that had been simmering within her since childhood.
“The tragedy shook me to my core,” she recalled. “I became fed up and disillusioned with my male life. After years of deep reflection, I realized that I was not living my true self.”
Asti turned for advice and support from the one person she truly trusted: her wife.
“She tried her best to understand, but this was the 1970s” Astii explained, describing those first conversations as “awkward.” Asti’s wife supported her then-husband as best she could, but the pair amicably divorced 18 months following her transition.
“It was a sad day, but it was the right thing to do for us,” Asti recalled of the divorce, but she also described her former wife as “lovely” and “understanding” and a “dear friend.”
Asti met her eventual husband, Norwood Patton, some years later at a local bar the pair frequented. They started dating not long after, although Asti was apprehensive about telling Patton too much from her past.
“I used to joke with him that he better start thinking about whether he could be involved with someone with a rather strange past — this only excited him more,” Asti recalled. “Eventually, I told him my life story.”
Patton left the conversation shaken, and Asti didn’t hear from him for over a week. When he did finally call, they arranged to meet. She planned on arriving ten minutes early, only to discover Patton was already waiting for her.
“After ordering two dirty martinis, he took my hands and held them in his and said, ‘Robina, I have never met a more special and loving person than you. My behavior was inappropriate, and I spent this week thinking how I was going to apologize for my insensitivity. Frankly, there is no other woman I would rather spend the rest of my life with than you. Please forgive me for being such a fool.’”
The pair were married a few years later in 2004 and remained together until Patton passed away in 2014 at the age of 97. When denied standard widow benefits from the Social Security Administration because the government didn’t recognize Asti as a woman at the time of her marriage to Patton, she decided to fight back. With the help of Lambda Legal, the 92-year-old grieving widow won her case. In the process, she forced the government to update its policies and procedures for survivor benefits for transgender spouses.
Asti felt so empowered by the victory, she saw it as a chance to finally live openly as a trans woman. Up until Patton’s death, Asti had chosen to not speak about her experience transitioning, allowing others to assume she was cisgender. Now she told her story to anyone who would listen. She became a prized speaker and delivered a famed TedTalk where she gave sage advice to a much younger generation of trans activists.
Asti also created the Cloud Dancers Foundation. Named after the World War I term for pilots who appeared to dance amid the clouds in their planes, the foundation seeks to support the forgotten “invisible” members of the community who live alone, lacking companionships and help with basic physical needs.
“At 98-years-old, she founded The Cloud Dancers Foundation because she deeply felt that LGBTQ+ elders were being treated as the ‘walking invisible’ and wanted to change how people perceived them and others in the LGBTQ+ community,” daughter Astey explains.
Asti also envisioned the Foundation as a link between the older and younger trans community, providing the type of outreach and support she went without when she transitioned.
“I was alone,” Asti remembered. “I had no movement or community available to support my transition. That was a dark and lonely period in my life, and I felt abandoned.”
Asti also revealed her hope that the impact of the Cloud Dancers Foundation on the community would outlast her life.
“With Cloud Dancers, I have a chance to let my legacy live on past my own lifetime,” she said.
Hummel tells Out his family and the Cloud Dancers Foundation intend to fully honor her last request. In the days and weeks before her passing Asti had been working on a new project to coincide with the International Transgender Day of Visibility on March 31.
“To celebrate Robina's nearly 100 years of life we are seeking to raise $100,000 for all her years of impacting the world and to continue the mission of the Cloud Dancers Foundation,” Hummel reveals.
Those wishing to contribute to the Cloud Dancers Foundation in Asti’s honor or learn more about her life and activism can visit the foundations website www.CloudDancers.org.
Lambda Legal also featured Asti’s story in the short documentary Flying Solo: A Transgender Widow Fights Discrimination below.