Before Lady Gaga released her gay anthem “Born This Way” in 2011, singer Carl Bean, an openly gay Black man signed to Motown Records released the soul-stirring disco gay anthem “I Was Born This Way,” 34 years before it was in vogue to be anything other than heterosexual publicly, or even an LGBTQ+ ally. The gay-affirming single, which cracked the top 20 on the Billboard charts is one of many groundbreaking achievements by Bean—the recording artist turned social justice activist and minister with deep roots in the Black Pentecostal experience, dating back to his childhood at Providence Baptist Church in his native Baltimore, Maryland.
As a child, Bean says he was aware of his deep connection to God, his growing love for singing gospel music, his attraction to other boys his age, and the sexual encounters he experienced that stood in direct conflict with his strict Pentecostal upbringing.
His world collapsed when a friend from Providence Baptist with whom he had been sexually intimate told his family about their relationship. At 14, Bean was confronted and condemned by church leaders and family, leading to a suicide attempt and a lengthy forced hospitalization, as reported in a profile on Bean by LGBTQ Religious Archives Network.
Upon release from the hospital, Bean flourished as a gospel singer in local Baltimore. At 16, he made the leap to New York City to pursue work as a professional singer. Bean joined Christian Tabernacle, a spiritualist church in Harlem, and sang with the Gospel Souls. He soon met the renowned Alex Bradford and other prominent gospel singers and writers. After a brief time in Chicago, Bean returned to New York City in the late 1960s with Bradford to work on creating a gospel Broadway show. He took part in the series of workshops that lead to the opening of Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope on Broadway in 1972.
The demand grew for additional secular music from Bean by Motown after the success of “I Was Born This Way,” but he showed no interest, instead, expressing a call to ministry.
In 1972, with no money and no job, Bean left the Alex Bradford Singers and boarded a bus from New York to Los Angeles to realize a new dream of serving people in need. He enrolled in MCC’s Samaritan College and was officially ordained on August 17, 1982, at the beginning of the HIV epidemic, which would become central to his work through the Minority AIDS Project. “He received widespread media attention–first locally and then nationwide–as one of the very few African American clergies initially responding to the HIV crisis. Bean began his ministry, which he called Unity Fellowship of Christ Church (UFC) in South-central L.A. He arranged a notice in The Sentinel, L.A.’s African American newspaper about an openly gay minister starting a Bible study with gays and lesbians that initially met in his home,” according toLGBTQ Religious Archives Network.
As the Bible studies grew, Bean used the prominent Ebony Showcase Theater for worship starting in 1985. In 1988, the community purchased an old warehouse on West Jefferson Blvd. and converted it to what has become the Mother Church of Unity Fellowship. In 1990, the Unity Fellowship Church Movement was incorporated and began expanding its ministries to other parts of the U.S., including Atlanta. Enter Rev. Antonio Jones.
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