Archbishop Carl Bean – LA’s pioneer gay Black preacher – dies at 77

Archbishop Carl Bean,  an AIDS activist and a pioneering minster who founded one of the first (if not the first) churches in the nation to embrace the gay Black community, died Tuesday at a hospice facility in Los Angeles. He was 77.

Bean also was a singer who popularized the 1970s Motown song “I Was Born This Way,” a dance club staple and gay pride anthem that inspired one of Lady Gaga’s biggest hits.

Bean’s death was announced by the Unity Fellowship Church Movement, a Christian denomination that he established in South Los Angeles in 1982. It was considered by many people to be the country’s first Black church that welcomed the LGBTQ community with open arms.

Bean preached that “God is love and love is for everyone.”

“Archbishop Carl 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,” the Unity Fellowship Church Movement said in a statement.

It said he made the “transition to eternal life” Tuesday “after a lengthy illness,” but did not give a specific cause of death.

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Three years later, Bean started the Minority AIDS Project, becoming the face of Black AIDS activism in the City of Angels at a time when AIDS was widely viewed as a disease that affected white gay men. The program also was the first of its kind to in the U.S. to offer services to gay Black men who were HIV positive.

“For the Black LGBT community, (Archbishop Carl Bean) was the voice,” the organization’s current director, the Rev. Elder Russell E. Thornhill, told the Washington Post. “He was the voice that told men who were dying that God’s love is for you. He was the voice that told men who were living with AIDS, and transgender people, that nothing will ever separate you from God’s love. He was the voice that proclaimed the sacredness of all life — for transgender men and women, Latina, Black heterosexual people — for all people.”

Before he delivered Sunday morning sermons, Bean spread his message of love through gospel, funk, and disco. He had turned to music after a difficult childhood in Baltimore, where Bean said he was sexually abused as a young boy by his uncle and attempted suicide after his foster parents found out he was gay.

When he was 16, Bean took a Greyhound bus to New York, where he joined gospel groups.

“The vehicle out of the ghetto for me was Black gospel,” he told Vice in 2016.

In 1977, Bean recorded his only hit as a solo artist, “I Was Born This Way,” a fanny bumping disco track with a gospel feel that featured lyrics about gay pride:

“I’m walking through life in nature’s disguise, yeah / You laugh at me and you criticize, yeah / ’Cause I’m happy, carefree and gay — yes, I’m gay / Ain’t no fault, it’s a fact / I was born this way.”

Vice called it “one of the greatest gay club anthems of all time.” The song reached No. 15 on Billboard’s Dance Club Songs chart and was remixed multiple times in the 1980s. A new generation of listeners found the song after Lady Gaga said it inspired her 2011 album and single “Born This Way,” another celebration of queer identity.

“Thank you for decades of relentless love, bravery, and a reason to sing,” she tweeted in May, addressing Bean on the 10th anniversary of her Grammy-nominated album.

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Bean was born in Baltimore on May 26, 1944. His father was 16, his mother 15; Bean said she later died after a botched abortion. Bean’s neighbors took him in and raised him as a son.

When he was 14, they learned he was gay and brought him to their minister. The church “was my haven,” Bean said in a 1992 interview with the Los Angeles Times, but the pastor “didn’t have an answer” and left him feeling hopeless.

When Bean returned home, he locked himself in the bathroom and attempted suicide. His foster father broke in and took him to the hospital, where a psychiatrist from Europe helped Bean accept his sexuality.

“She said, There are many people like you. I can’t do what your parents want – make you a heterosexual – but I can help you accept who you are and go for your dreams,” he told Vice.

“That gave me enlightenment and the chance to accept myself,” he told the magazine.. “If I had another doctor, I might have been a different animal.”

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As a minister, Bean said his goal was to provide a spiritual and literal sanctuary for Black gay men who, like him, had been shunned by their churches and communities.

He based his ministry in theology that advocated for social change and aid for the poor and oppressed. Bean said he was motivated, in part, by his frustration over the Black clergy’s silence  to the AIDS epidemic.

“Where were they?” he asked The Washington Post in 2004. “The same place they had always been on sex: silent and hiding.” He added that when Black men died of AIDS in Los Angeles, their mothers called him, saying, “Can you bury my son? My preacher won’t do it.”

Bean launched the Minority AIDS Project with support from music industry friends such as Dionne Warwick, who performed at group fundraisers. The organization expanded to offer nursing care, counseling, financial aid, HIV testing, and temporary housing. It recently started to offer COVID-19 vaccinations and testing.

Bean’s influence as a minister also grew through the years, with more than a dozen Unity Fellowship churches opening throughout the country.

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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