Carl Bean, a gay icon who escaped a hardscrabble childhood in Baltimore to become a Motown singer, founder of an LGBT church network and eventually an archbishop, has died. He was 77.
“Archbishop Bean worked tirelessly for the liberation of the underserved and for LGBTQ people of faith and in doing so, helped many around the world find their way back to spirituality and religion,” wrote the Unity Fellowship Church Movement in a Tuesday statement announcing its founder’s death. Bean’s Sept. 7 “transition to eternal life” came “after a lengthy illness.”
While Bean was a legend in his own time who influenced a great diversity of industries in the process of advocating for the LGBTQ community and black civil rights, his rendition of the disco hit “I Was Born This Way” and its influence over Lady Gaga’s 2011 represents his most recent and best-known cultural contribution.
“I always say the lyric found me, and it was very natural,” Bean told NPR in 2019 of being asked to cover the 1975 tune, which was originally sung by the singer Valentino. “[It] has just been a blessing to my life. And it’s been a blessing, once again, to even another generation’s life through the take that Gaga did on it.”
The song became a career-defining moment for Bean in the mid-1970s, by which time he already had multiple lives-worth of accomplishments to his name — all despite the odds. Born in 1944 Baltimore, Bean was raised by a neighbor after his mother died during an abortion but was kicked out after realizing he was attracted to boys and being abused by his uncle. He soon found himself in a mental hospital, but resisted homophobic electroshock therapy and, after being released, began performing gospel in Baltimore, the BBC reported.
He moved to New York City at age 16 and appeared in a Langston Hughes production before moving to Los Angeles and forming the group Carl Bean and Universal Love. Following the success of “I Was Born This Way,” Bean chose to become an AIDS activist and found the LGBT and black congregant-focused Unity Fellowship of Christ Church instead of pursuing a Motown career since he refused to sing commercially-angled romantic tracks about women.
The many honors he received during his lifetime of advocacy work including the NAACP Image Award.
“Thank you for decades of relentless love, bravery and a reason to sing,” Lady Gaga told Bean this May, the 10th anniversary of her “Born This Way”’s release. “So we can all feel joy, because we deserve joy. Because we deserve the right to inspire tolerance, acceptance and freedom for all.”