L.A. Mourns the Death of Preacher and AIDS Activist Carl Bean

The South L.A. spiritual leader, who created a space for LGBTQ churchgoers and inspired a Lady Gaga hit, passed away this week after a lengthy illness

Carl Bean, a prominent Los Angeles AIDS activist, progressive minister, and former Motown artist who’s gay liberation hit “I Was Born This Way” inspired one of Lady Gaga’s biggest songs, died on September 7.

Bean, who was 77, died from a “lengthy illness,” according to a statement from Unity Fellowship Church Movement, the Christian denomination that grew out of his ministry to serve the Black LGBTQ community in L.A., the Washington Post reports.

“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,” the statement reads.

Bean’s work with the Black LGBTQ community in L.A. began when he founded the Unity Fellowship of Christ Church in West Adams in 1982, preaching that “God is love and love is for everyone” at a time when gay people were frequently told in church that they’d be damned to hell because of their sexuality.

Bean quickly became the face of Black AIDS activism in L.A. after he launched the Minority AIDS Project in 1985, which was the first in the country to offer services specifically for gay Black men with the disease, LAist reports. The project, which still operates today out of the fellowship center, is dedicated to assisting and providing education for low-income people at risk of or living with HIV/AIDS. In 2019, Councilman Herb Wesson dedicated an intersection of Jefferson Boulevard and Sycamore Avenue in South L.A. as Archbishop Carl Bean Square.

California representative Maxine Waters, who worked closely with Bean to develop minority AIDS funding in the federal budget, shared her condolences on Twitter, referring to Bean as her “dear friend.”

In the 2010 book I Was Born This Way: A Gay Preacher’s Journey through Gospel Music, Disco Stardom, and a Ministry in Christ, Bean shared his life story, from living in foster homes to moving into activism and religious leadership.

But before Bean became a gay rights leader, he was known for delivering messages by way of music. He released “ I Was Born This Way,” which he recorded in 1977 for Motown Records. With the lyrics, “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,” it became the first gay liberation anthem and peaked at No. 15 on Billboard’s dance chart, ABC 7 reports.

The song inspired Lady Gaga, who released her hit and album “Born This Way” more than four decades later.

“Born This Way, my song and album, were inspired by Carl Bean, a gay black religious activist who preached, sung and wrote about being ‘Born This Way’ Notably his early work was in 1975, 11 years before I was born,” Gaga tweeted earlier this year.

“Thank you for decades of relentless love, bravery, and a reason to sing,” she said. “So we can all feel joy, because we deserve joy. Because we deserve the right to inspire tolerance, acceptance, and freedom for all.”

L.A. journalist and Los Angeles contributor Jasmyne Cannick told LAist, “It’s truly a loss for our community. At Unity Fellowship Church, “no one was getting the side-eye” as they had in the Black congregations they grew up in, she said, adding, “no one had to hide who they were.”

Details of memorial services for Bean haven’t been announced yet, but are expected to be released by Unity Fellowship Church Movement.

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