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 “transition to eternal life” came on Sept. 7, “after a lengthy illness.”
While Bean was a legend in his own time — and one whose message reached many different 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 on Lady Gaga’s 2011 hit song 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 performed 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 had already achieved many lifetimes’ worth of accomplishments in spite of the odds. Born in 1944, the Baltimore native was raised by a neighbor after his mother died during an abortion. While living there, he was abused by his uncle — only to be kicked out of the household entirely after realizing he was attracted to boys. He ended up in a mental hospital, where — as a gay man living at a time when homosexuality was pathologized — he was offered electroshock therapy as a treatment, which he resisted. After his release, he 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 relocating to Los Angeles. It was there that he formed his band: Carl Bean and Universal Love. Following the success of “I Was Born This Way,” Bean — who was being pressured by the music industry to perform commercially-angled romantic tracks about women — chose to move away from his Motown career. Instead, he became an AIDS activist and founded the LGBT and black congregant-focused Unity Fellowship of Christ Church.
The many honors he received during his lifetime of advocacy work include the NAACP Image Award.
“Thank you for decades of relentless love, bravery and a reason to sing,” Lady Gaga told Bean this May, on the 10th anniversary of the release of her “Born This Way” cover. “So we can all feel joy, because we deserve joy. Because we deserve the right to inspire tolerance, acceptance and freedom for all.”