A 92-year-old World War II veteran is fighting the Social Security Administration (SSA) after it refused her survivor benefits following her husband’s death, saying she was legally male at the time of her marriage.
Robina Asti married her long-term partner Norwood Patton in a 2004 ceremony in an airplane hangar in Orange County, New York. Asti, who is a World War II veteran and a qualified pilot, had dreamed of this day for a long time.
Sadly, in June 2012 Mr Patton died at the age of 97. As is common among spouses, Asti applied to the SSA to receive survivor benefits. This would have added around $500 to her Social Security benefits, a boon when coping with the loss of a partner and all the expenses — not to mention the emotional cost — that one must deal with when someone passes away.
However, on April 24, 2013, the SSA informed Asti that she could not receive her survivor benefits because her marriage did not “meet the requirements under Federal law for payment of Social Security widow’s benefits,” and went on to say that Asti’s marriage to Patton was invalid because she was “legally male” at the time of their wedding.
Asti was birth-assigned male but had been living openly as a woman for 30 years prior to her wedding. She had female markers on key ID documents like her passport, FAA pilot’s license, and her driver’s license. It’s also worth reiterating that New York State had recognized Asti as a woman at the time of her marriage to Patton, and no one has questioned the validity of that marriage until now.
In June of 2013, Lambda Legal filed for a reconsideration of the case on Asti’s behalf. The SSA has yet to respond.
This is doubly upsetting for Asti as, having lived her life as a person who values her privacy, she is now being forced to go public with her story so that others don’t have to go through the discrimination she has faced.
You can hear more on Robina Asti’s story and how she feels in the video below:
“For the federal government to deny her survivor benefits now is inexplicable,” Dru Levasseur, Transgender Rights Project Director, is quoted as saying. “This remarkable woman should not have had the grief of losing the love of her life compounded by the insult of having her gender and marriage disrespected.”
Asti’s case seems to hinge on how the SSA has decided to focus on Asti’s being sex-assigned male at birth, attempting to establish that when she entered into her marriage with Patton, it was in fact a same-sex marriage and therefore does not qualify for the marriage standard under federal law because at the time New York state did not grant same-sex couples marriage rights.
This isn’t the reality of what happened, however. Under New York State law, Asti and Patton were joined in a heterosexual marriage. Unless the SSA is willing to argue that the marriage should never have been recognized, which would have wider repercussions for other couples in similar situations, the SSA has made a terrible error. Hopefully it can be rectified rather simply. That will not erase the damage done to Asti, though.
This case does, however, speak to the various challenges that trans men and women face when trying to access the broad set of rights associated with marriage and the uncertainty of whether officials will recognize their (lawful) marriages or choose to take issue on grounds of their identity. These kinds of problems can sometimes be solved by same-sex marriage rights because it prevents the question over the gender of the parties being asked, but that isn’t always the case, something that state administrations and the federal government will need to address for true marriage equality.
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Photo credit: Image captured from YouTube video under Fair Use terms.