Black Like Me: Gay, Free and Happy!

By Johari Jabir

In Memoriam: Carl Bean (May 26, 1944 – September 8, 2021)

It is an old story. Some ultra-talented Black singer leaves the church in order to pursue a career in a more lucrative career in secular music. Never mind the fact that the binary divisions between the sacred and secular have never really worked when it comes to Black music, Carl Bean is one of those many examples of Black gospel talent who may have momentarily left the building but took the spirit of the church with him. Born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, Carl Bean grew up attending Providence Baptist Church where Rev. Marcus Garvey Good was pastor. In his autobiography, I Was Born This Way: A Gay Preacher’s Journey Through Gospel Music, Disco Stardom, and a Ministry in Christ, Bean describes his childhood church as a community of, “strivers, those looking to advance themselves in not only the intellectual and spiritual realm but the economic as well” (49). The music at Providence was very proper, but Bean was drawn to the more “rootsy” music played in his household and in the storefronts he visited. Bean’s own church preached acceptance, but the churches he visited were the first spaces he heard anti-gay theologies.

Bean left Baltimore in 1960 and moved to New York where he worked with the famed gospel artist, Alex Bradford. Bean left New York in 1972 for Los Angeles, California where THE major break in his musical career happened in 1977 when Bean released his testimonial hit, I Was Born This Way on Motown Records. Bean delivered I Was Born This Way as if he were “preaching the blues.” The song was not only a disco hit, but it held special significance for those of us within the Black Queer community. It is not surprising that Bean’s version of I Was Born This Way was available to Lady Gaga, (a fact she acknowledges, thankfully), as Black music has emerged out of the particular conditions of the Black experience, while also holding the capacity to bear witness to the fullness of humanity. The success of Bean’s anthem was short lived, and Bean never wavered from his Christian roots. Like a prophet, Bean saw what was on the horizon for Black queer people at the start of the 1980s. He perceived how the combination of HIV/AIDS denial in Black communities, and violent anti-gay theology on the part of some Black Churches would have dire consequences for Black queers. Bean founded the Unity Fellowship Church (Los Angeles) in 1982, and several churches were added across the nation under the Unity Fellowship umbrella. True to his vision of religion and “intersectionality,” Bean soon led the Unity Fellowship church movement to establish the Minority AIDS Project, one of the first HIV/AIDS organizations in the nation founded to serve Black people and other persons of color. For Bean, founding the Minority AIDS Project was reflective of his practical application of Black liberation theology and “intersectionality.”

A deep thinker and independent intellectual, Bean’s ministry took theoretical frameworks but blended them with African spirituality as a source of healing and transformation. When I attended a Unity Fellowship Conference some years back, everything felt so Candomble`; The market place outside the hotel ballroom was filled with African oils, shea butter, various cloths, and the smells in incense. Inside the ballroom, where the worship service was held, everything and everyone was draped in white. A sense of the metaphysical, the miraculous, and the mystical were emphasized in the many incantations, songs, and sermon. The ancestors were invoked and welcome to facilitate a collective healing from racial traumas and homophobic violence enacted against us, often by our very own. Bean was the high priest in our Black queer ceremony of affirmation. He drew upon gospel music from the migration as therapeutic memory, a medicine of hope and radical possibility.

Bean had help from the elders in learning how to turn his struggles into a vehicle by which to serve others. As a young person Bean was mentored by the esteemed Black clergy, Rev. Dr. Samuel Dewitt Proctor, whose messages of radical love and justice took root in Bean’s spirit. During his stint in New York Bean was influenced by Rev. William Morris O’Neill’s Christian Tabernacle Church, a spiritual church that grew out of the ministry of Rev. Clarence “Preacher” Cobbs’ First Church of Deliverance, Chicago, IL. Bean was not alone in the attempt to provide fugitive sanctuaries for queer people, specifically Black queers. His comrades in the work include figures such as Bishop Troy Perry and Bishop Yvette Flunder. Even as he was such a strong Black Gay man with great feelings of love for his people Bean had his flaws. He could be prideful in ways that some people found alienating. While he chose a righteous freedom of exile, he could sometimes isolate himself from resources that would have served his vision. Nevertheless, Bean was a valiant soldier in the battle to pray with those he was called to serve. His message was simple, even as it cut deep to the core: God’s unconditional care and concern for his people’s love, their bodies, and their souls was for EVERYONE.  

It will be difficult in the coming days, to resist the temptation to reduce Carl Bean to a footnote in Lady Gaga’s hit, Born This Way. For so many of us Bean was more than one song – even though the song is our everything; the horrific story of how we got here, of “how we got over,” and how now, one of our priests, Carl Bean has “moved on up a little higher.”

Bishop John Selders, founder and pastor of Amistad United Church of Christ in Hartfort, Connecticut, conducted an extensive interview with Arch-Bishop Bean in the years leading up to his death. Selders reflected on the range of Bean’s life, “from being a student of The Rev. Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor, to his connections to the black urban spiritual church and his musical opus from gospel to disco, Archbishop’s status as a spiritual giant who lived and served among us will not be forgotten.”

Arch-Bishop Carl Bean was one of those rarest of Black men who was born free—knew it, and determined to live from that place of knowing.

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