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Carl Bean, LA’s Pioneer Gay Black Preacher Who Inspired Lady Gaga, Dead at 77

Archbishop Carl Bean is visible from his head to just below his shoulders. He's looking slightly to his left, his hand grasping a golden sceptre with a curved top. He has a white conical hat, white vestments, and pink fabric draped over his shoulders. On the pink fabric, a map of Africa with a triangle in it is visible on his left shoulder.
Archbishop Carl Bean
(Courtesy of Unity Fellowship Church Movement)
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Carl Bean, the Motown artist who inspired Lady Gaga’s song “Born This Way” and founded a church to provide a spiritual home for the Black LGBTQ community, died in L.A. on Tuesday. He was 77.

Bean’s work with the Black LGBTQ community began in the 1980s and included the founding of the Minority AIDS Project, the first such project in the nation to offer services directed at gay Black men with the disease.

Carl Bean, LA’s Pioneer Gay Black Preacher Who Inspired Lady Gaga, Dead at 77

Unity Fellowship Church of Los Angeles — which Bean founded and was known as the Mother Church — said in a statement: “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 church said Bean died after "a lengthy illness."

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“It’s truly a loss for our community,” said Jasmyne Cannick, an L.A. journalist and political strategist. 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.”

Bean’s philosophy: God is love and love is for everyone.

It Began With A Small Bible Study Gathering

In a 2004 interview with KPCC, Bean described how the church got started after he gathered some friends in his living room for a Bible study in 1982.

“I started the little study group just to share with people liberation theology and a liberal lens through which to view the book itself,” he said. They soon proposed a church service and ended up leasing a space in the West Adams District.

Black members of the LGBTQ community at the time were told in their churches that they were going to hell. “They were the places that had the ability to inflict the most amount of pain because we needed them so much,” said Phill Wilson, who worked with Bean as executive director of the Minority AIDS Project.

Black men with HIV or AIDS were especially shunned, he said. Wilson has an enduring memory of frail men who were near death from the disease coming to Unity Fellowship services and being held and caressed by Bean at the pulpit, when many others refused to even touch them.

“They would just break down in tears as he just held them,” Wilson said.

Lady Gaga's Tribute

Bean arrived by bus in L.A. in the early 1970s after growing up in Baltimore singing gospel. He wanted to make records.

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He had talent — he sang with Dionne Warwick at one point.

Bean hit it big in 1977 when he recorded “I Was Born This Way” for Motown Records. A gay liberation anthem first recorded by the singer Valentino two years earlier, it ended up inspiring Lady Gaga’s song "Born This Way" more than a quarter-century later. In a 2019 NPR story, Bean said he had always known he was gay, so the song seemed like a perfect fit for him.

"I always say the lyric found me, and it was very natural," he said.

Gaga mourned Bean’s death in an Instagram post Wednesday.

“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 wrote.

“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.”

Cannick said she was getting text messages from Bean until just a few weeks ago. “He was always sending me encouraging messages telling me to go for it, or I’m so proud of you,” she said. “And he called himself pops to me.”

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