The forgotten trans history of the first Beastie Boys record

Before the Beastie Boys were rhymin' and stealin' on their major label debut, License to Ill, the group released an EP called Polly Wog Stew. The 8-song album was released in 1982 by a New York-based independent hardcore/punk label called Rat Cage Records, which was based out of a record shop of the same name, both of which were run by a woman named Donna Lee Parsons.

At the time, of course, Parsons was known by a different name. In fact, according to Beastie Adam Horovitz in The Beastie Boys Book, it was the Beasties themselves who paid for Parsons' gender-affirming surgery (under the guise of repaying her for royalties owed from Polly Wog Stew, knowing she would never take the money as a charity offering).

About a year later, Parsons died from colon cancer.

From Norman Bannon's anti-matter newsletter:

In his recent memoir, Agnostic Front's Roger Miret writes: "When we mastered Victim In Pain at Frankford Wayne, [Donna] showed up wearing a dress and freaked the shit out of the engineer. We didn't have any problem with that. Anything goes in New York. Plus, [Donna] was cool. So what if [s]he liked to wear silky panties and a bra? To each his own."

This tracks with Donna's own description of that era. "I was deliberately trying to look like a woman in public," she wrote on her personal blog in September 2002, "although I still clung to the 'shock' element of punk as a protective buffer. I had a very long way to go."

Part of it, of course, is that Donna didn't have a language to describe her experience, and in fact, she says that it wasn't until January of 2002 that she first heard the word "transgender." As soon as she read about it, Donna saw herself—perhaps for the first time—and began transitioning almost immediately. ("I saw the light at the end of a very dark tunnel and I ran straight for it," she wrote.) Tragically, not long afterwards, Donna was diagnosed with colon cancer. She had an operation to remove the cancer that year, followed by six months of chemotherapy, but the cancer came back.

Parsons' punk rock credibility didn't just start and end with the Beasties, either. In fact, she's the person who designed the iconic lightning bolt art for Bad Brains!

Bannon highlights Parsons' story as part of a broader exploration of queerness in the punk and hardcore scenes. Bannon relates Parsons' experience to that of Against Me! frontwoman Laura Jane Grace (who publicly came out as trans in a 2012 issue of Rolling Stone, nearly a decade after Parsons' death), as well as his own experiences as a gay Latino in the world of punk rock and hardcore. As he writes in his tribute to Parsons:

There seems to be a temptation among many of the people who have shared memories about "Dave Ratcage" to speak about Donna as if she isn't actually the person in those stories—as if, somehow, her pre-transition accomplishments and innovations do not belong to her. But it was, in fact, Donna who founded Rat Cage Records. It was Donna who designed the Bad Brains cassette. It was Donna who had the incredible imagination and foresight to ask Beastie Boys to make a record for Rat Cage at their first show ever. So if you've ever worn a "lightning bolt" t-shirt or listened to Victim in Pain or found yourself fondly recalling a Beastie Boys show you went to, you have a transgender woman to thank for that. And we should know her story

True Trans Soul Rebel [Norman Bannon / Anti-Matter]