I Was Born This Way: A Gay Preacher's Journey through Gospel Music, Disco Stardom, and a Ministry in Christby Carl Bean
CARL BEAN has been crossing boundaries all his life and helping others do/b>/i>
In I Was Born This Way, Carl Bean, former Motown recording artist, noted AIDS activist, and founder of the Unity Fellowship of Christ Church in Los Angeles, shares his extraordinary personal journey from Baltimore foster homes to the stage of the Apollo Theater and beyond.
CARL BEAN has been crossing boundaries all his life and helping others do the same. He’s never been stopped by his race or orientation, never fit or stayed in the boxes people have wanted to put him in. He left his foster home in Baltimore at seventeen and took the bus to New York City, where he quickly found the rich culture of the Harlem churches. As a singer, first with the gospel Alex Bradford Singers and later as a Motown recording artist, Bean was a sensation. When Berry Gordy signed him to record "I Was Born This Way," it was a first: the biggest black-owned record company broadcasting a statement on gender identity. The #1 song, recorded with the Sweet Inspirations, was the first gay liberation dance club hit.
Whether making records, educating the black community about HIV and AIDS, or preaching to his growing congregation, Archbishop Bean has never wanted to minister to just one group. He’s worked on AIDS issues with C. Everett Koop and Elizabeth Taylor and on civil rights issues with Maxine Waters, Julian Bond, and Reverend Joseph Lowery. At the height of his recording career, he worked with Dionne Warwick, Burt Bacharach, Miles Davis, and Sammy Davis Jr. He’s brought South Central Los Angeles gang members into his church, which now has 25,000 members in twelve cities nationwide; those same Crips and Bloods have shown up at the Gay Pride parades Bean has organized with U.S. Congresswoman Maxine Waters. And he has courageously devoted his time and energy to spurring black civil rights leaders to address the AIDS health crisis within the African American community—an issue on which they had been silent.
Preaching an all-embracing progressive theology, he is an outspoken practitioner of brotherly love, a dynamic preacher, and a social activist. The Unity Fellowship message is grace: "God is love, and God is for everyone"; "God is gay, God is straight, God is black, God is white." I Was Born This Way is the rare personal history of one of black gospel’s biggest stars and a frank, powerful, and warmhearted testament to how one man found his calling.
Reverend Troy D. Perry, Founder of the Metropolitan Community Churches
“Sometimes hilarious, sometimes horrifying, always illuminating, I Was Born This Way will become a light in the darkness for many readers. It could not be more welcome.
Anthony Heilbut, author of The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times
"Bean has certainly led a one-of-a-kind life, and his fast-moving, engaging memoir illuminates the 1960s and ’70s gospel world and provides the rare perspective of a homosexual minister....The message is insightful and often powerful. A worthy memoir from a truly unique individual."
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Read an Excerpt
I begin in the streets of my childhood in Baltimore. I remember the joy and love. We were all related by blood, common experience, or mutual care. I was a little feminine creature, a soft boy with a big heart and an even bigger need to love and be loved. The village gave me that love. It was filled with characters—cardplayers and garbagemen, hairdressers and seamstresses, car mechanics and factory workers, domestics, teachers, and preachers, people from the South who came to Baltimore and did their best to adjust to the brick-hard reality of urban life.
My neighbor Mrs. Jordan, sensing I wanted to help, showed me how to scrub her stoop. While we scrubbed, she talked about Lionel Hampton and the man called Charlie “Yardbird” Parker. Other neighbors, like Mr. and Mrs. Wise, had Duke Ellington records on 78 vinyl discs that they played for me. I loved going over to Aunt Nellie’s. She wasn’t a blood relative but treated me like one. At her house, I learned to read music, read magazines like National Geographic, and cut fried chicken to the bone. Aunt Nellie was an elementary school teacher who later became a principal. She and her husband, Uncle Andrew, had no children. An oil painting of their dog Chubby hung over their fireplace. There was Ms. Florence, whose skin was whitening and turning her into an albino and who always had time for me. Mr. Johnson, with his secret stack of nude-ladies playing cards; the drum majors in their fabulous costumes; Jewish merchants like Morris Ginsberg, whose wife taught me words in a strange language called Yiddish.
And there I was—singing doo-wop with the boys, jumping double Dutch with the girls, shooting marbles, moving from house to house where I was always welcomed, wanted, and appreciated. They saw my girlish ways and never once chided me. I never felt the need to hide in a closet. I thrived among my people. They gave me the emotional stamina to be me—the authentic me.
Looking back, I see that the village was founded on the love of God.
God was there before I knew what to call that spirit.
God was there to convey the unspoken words that I heard not in my ears but in my heart: It’s all right. You’re all right. Yes, Carl, you’re safe.
Among the poorest of the poor, among the frightened and the lonely, among the scorned and rejected, among families that were broken and on the brink of destruction, God was there.
God was there in my eyes as I looked at the world around me.
Baltimore, Maryland, 1947, a city of row houses. A city marked by strict racial and social divisions. And a city within a city where a people, cut off from all wealth and privilege, struggled to survive.
The creator was there as I, a chubby child, sat on those worn marble steps and felt sounds coming across my vocal cords. God was there in my voice as I started to sing the first few notes.
I hadn’t been to church all that often, but often enough to fall in love with God’s music. As I stood up and started marching, singing all the way, I pretended to be a member of the choir walking down the main aisle while women in wide-brimmed hats waved handkerchiefs and cried out, “Sing, boy! Go on and sing!” In reality I was walking down the alley between the two houses that would define my childhood.
Once in that same alley I found an old beat-up umbrella. I tore the black nylon material from its frame and threw it over my shoulders. This was my robe. I was singing God’s praises before I knew what those words meant.
God was in my mouth, in my song, in my make-believe.
I can’t tell you why I felt this connection to God.
I can’t tell you why I picked up that tiny ant crawling on the pavement and placed it in the palm of my hand. Why in that creature did I feel a connection to all things? Why did that connection give me a joy that had no name—a joy that kept me calm when I had every reason to be crazy?
Why did I see God in the ant?
Why did I see God in the little green buds on the branches of a scraggly old tree?
Why did I see God in the puffy gray clouds racing across the sky?
Why did I feel God in the first drops of gentle rain falling on my face?
God was with my family when we assembled in the living room to watch the gathering storm.
He was there when the lightning cracked and the thunder rolled.
The elders turned off the radio—even to interrupt their favorite program—and said, “God is speaking through the storm.” The elders believed that God was alive in the power of the storm. The elders prayed silently while we children sat in reverence until the storm passed.
© 2010 Carl Bean and David Ritz
Meet the Author
David Ritz is the only four-time winner of the Gleason Music Book Award.
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