INTERVIEW: Archbishop Carl Bean, Unity Fellowship Church

By Susan Jordan
“Wherever you identify yourself sexually along God’s rainbow of sexuality, know that you are not in error. Homosexual, Lesbian, Bisexual, Heterosexual, Transgender… you are not a mistake. God made you the way you are and God loves you just the way you are.”

This message of God’s unconditional love is a cornerstone of the Unity Fellowship Church, founded in 1992 by Carl Bean. When UFC held its midyear conference in Rochester in April, Archbishop Bean, who turns 65 this month, spoke with The Empty Closet about his life and work.

Born and raised in Baltimore, Md., Archbishop Bean was born with a beautiful singing voice and love of music. His family was part of a close-knit neighborhood that provided support in a racist world and he grew up active in the church. He also played a role, even as a child, in the early civil rights movement. His mentors, many of whom were brilliant, committed leaders, enabled him to connect spirituality and activism from an early age.

Archbishop Bean said, “Baltimore in my youth had he largest branch of the NAACP, and the woman there, Mrs. Lillie Carroll Jackson, was I guess the lightning rod for females being active in political work and the community.” She was a role model for the young Carl, as was Dr. Marcus Garvey Woods, a Crozer Theological Seminary graduate who had been a classmate and close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who he called “Mike”.

Woods was called as pastor of the Providence Baptist Church in Baltimore. His sister in law, Mrs. Hattie Woods, was a Bean family neighbor, and she asked if she could take Carl to Sunday school at Providence. His mother agreed.

“So, at age 7,” Archbishop Bean said, “I was ushered into a very political environment. The group in Baltimore was the nucleus of the civil rights movement. I was introduced to Jesus as a rabble rouser who made things happen.”

The image of “Jesus the Liberator”, and of Jesus as an outsider, rejected and despised, enabled Carl and other African American people to identify with Him and to feel they were images of God. They were told they could do anything, instead of being told, “You’re going to hell”. He added, “I didn’t hear that until later.”

The young Carl joined the junior branch of the NAACP, the Jackie Robinson Youth Council. The youth were educated to know about their history and such figures as Frederick Douglass. They were also prepared for the treatment they would encounter at civil rights demonstrations.

“They’d put chairs on the floor and we sat there while they would taunt us, throw water at us, etc. – so we would be prepared,” Bean said. “My first march was in 1957, for jobs and freedom – the Prayer Pilgrimage – and it was organized by all those same people. That was in D.C., I was about 12. I remember that so vividly, boarding the Greyhound bus, us going to those churches that were involved in social justice issues… Dr. Martin Luther King was there, Mahalia (Jackson), etc. It was that which chartered me to be involved.”

As a child, Carl had always been highly praised by his family, and by the extended family of the neighborhood, for being a good student and a talented singer. History was his favorite subject.

“Then my orientation showed up,” he said. “I always knew I was attracted – pre-kindergarten. I remember looking at this boy and not understanding, but I knew I wanted that boy to be close to me and I wanted to be close to him – something in me was triggered. I was always, soft, passive; I was a singer and had a male soprano voice. And there was another boy – “Baby” something – we made friends and we knew we were the same… I remember Billy, who dressed differently – very flashy – and I knew we were alike.

“I’ve never felt the need to hide,” Bean continued. “I was always very comfortable being who I was. I played hopscotch with the girls and never even thought about baseball and the boy things. I was never tormented and I attribute that to the atmosphere of oppression that really kept the neighborhood together.”

As long as nothing was ever said openly, effeminate males and tomboy females had nothing to fear. “I always felt it was OK to be who I was,” the Archbishop says. “The other thing that helped me was my mother’s first cousin, who was gay and had left Virginia and gone to D.C. My mother always made Thanksgiving dinner for the whole family. My gay cousin and his male partner always sat at the table with the husbands and wives. No names were said, but it was obvious that the two men were together, and that gave me a sense of wellbeing about being different.”

Then something changed his life forever. “A neighbor boy and I were intimate and his parents told my parents… I got the blame. I was made to feel this terrible guilt. There was this rage from Dad, which I think was shame. So I was attacked, and I had never been attacked. I had had all this support – and suddenly I was a pariah… I had been little Carl who did well in school and could sing, etc. Now suddenly I was the bringer of shame…. At 13 I couldn’t go from being the little civil rights giant to what all the people I loved felt was the enemy… The problem was the dichotomy. I had this great sense of protection and then this homo shame. I felt like I was split in two.

“So I went to the bathroom and took every pill in the medicine cabinet and went into my room and locked the door, and wrote a note saying ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t be what you wanted me to be’.”

Carl’s father forced open the door and took him to the hospital where his stomach was pumped out. But because of the suicide attempt, he was not allowed to go home. He was placed in a psychiatric program. “It saved my life,” he said. “The psychiatrist treating me was German, and Europeans don’t have the same attitudes as Americans. She explained I was on suicide watch… and she said she couldn’t teach me to be what my parents wanted, but she could teach me to accept myself and be comfortable with who I was.”

Unfortunately, the program believed in giving electroshock treatments to children, and the German psychiatrist had to administer them to Carl, but he thinks she kept them as brief as possible.

Carl had read about New York City and Greenwich Village, so after his release he decided to move there. His father rented a room for him at the Sloane House Y on 34th St. and he got his first job two blocks away, working at Macy’s as a Christmas shipping clerk.

“My ability to make music always was what gave me a sense of self worth,” he said. “Singing was my companion. I would walk all over the city and sing.” He wanted to work on Broadway, but was told that because he was black he couldn’t – all-black shows were few and far between. “But the world was changing…” Professor Alex Bradford, author of many gospel songs, invited Carl, then aged 17, to become a member of the Alex Bradford Singers.

“I was in the show ‘The Black Nativity’. Langston Hughes wrote it. The Harlem Renaissance gay people were older then and they were looking for young gay and lesbian black people to get them into theatre.”

Meanwhile Carl also met many gay people. “The Village protected me and wouldn’t let anyone beat me,” he said. The black gay community in Greenwich Village had replaced the protective, close-knit old neighborhood.
“When I got to New York, I was so free!” he says. “I knew nothing about what was happening in the baths, etc., but I soon found out. So this was like heaven.”

Later Carl left Broadway and moved to Los Angeles. “I took the Greyhound to California and my whole life changed…. It was ’72 and we were beginning to put together ‘message music’. I was ‘Baby Boy’ and they were real protective of me.” Carl became involved with a group of gays and lesbians who met to talk about their lives, and the group eventually evolved as the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center. “I fell in love with the people and the stories were many and varied,” he said. At this time he met Harvey Milk, Troy Perry (founder of MCC), Harry Hay and others, and took part in early gay rights marches.

He was signed to ABC Records and later Berry Gordy of Motown heard his demo record and asked him to become a Motown recording artist. At Motown he recorded “I Was Born This Way,” a song written by a heterosexual woman, Bunny Jones, who had many gay friends. An earlier version of the song had not worked out, but in 1977 Motown recorded it in a disco version, featuring Carl Bean. “I took her song and began to riff, like you do in jazz,” Archbishop Bean said. “Basically I re-wrote that song. I sang as if I was at a gospel concert, and it became a bestseller. It’s still a standard.”

Berry Gordy’s acceptance of a gay song and openly gay singer was remarkable in an era when being gay was something “unspeakable.” Bean says, “Motown was good to me and I never experienced any homophobia. My picture went up in the hallway like all the other artists’. We came to a parting of the ways… when they wanted me to do songs like ‘ooh girl I love you so’ – right after they promoted me as openly gay. So that’s how we really parted. But it was a great time for me and I have no bad stories about Motown. They allowed me to be myself.”

In the early ‘80s, HIV began to make itself known and Carl Bean wanted to reach out and help. He became involved with the group Shantih, which originated the buddy system for people living with AIDS and used a very spiritual approach. He took the Shantih training and then took his knowledge back to his community, where he did HIV education work and was “pleasantly surprised” by the support he received from the community, even after a white Christian woman tried to attack him as a homosexual.

Bean was ordained in 1982 by Archbishop William Morris O’Neal of the Universal Tabernacles of Christ Church. “I had meetings where I introduced people to Liberation Theology,” he said, “and introduced the Bible to young people as the life of this Palestinian Jew. I had dreams from 1972 to ’82 about a church in a theatre – and it wound up being in a theatre when we started our first church.”

Bean founded the Unity Fellowship of Christ Church, Los Angeles, and became its first pastor. He then spent many years on the road, after getting requests for his help in founding accepting, affirming churches. “I told them, ‘If you can get 10 black gay men and lesbians together, who aren’t afraid to be out, I will come and talk.’ So I went to many cities for many years, and only went back to L.A. around ’95.”

Archbishop Bean formed the Minority AIDS Project, the first non-profit community service agency created and managed by people of color to serve communities of color affected by the AIDS epidemic, as the first UFC outreach ministry. His work was backed by people like Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Rev. Jesse Jackson and many others, including the NAACP. He has recruited help from everyone from university students to members of gangs like the Crips and Bloods.

The Archbishop has received many awards, including an NAACP Image Award, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Martin Luther King Prophetic Witness Award, the Christopher Street West Lambda Award, the Presbyterian Church’s Justice Ministry Lazarus Award, the Evangelicals Together Phyliss P. Hart Award, the National Minority AIDS Council Award, and the National Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum Harriet Tubman Award, as well as recognition by the National Council of Negro Women and the Hip Hop Community.

Summing up his life, the Archbishop says, “It’s been a good journey.” He is now writing an autobiography, with David Ritz. They have a contract with the publisher Simon and Schuster, and hopefully the book will be published in 2010. The publisher wants to call the book “I Was Born This Way,” but Bean prefers “Love Cannot Survive in the Closet.”

He says, “I want parents today to read my book, so when somebody comes to them and says ‘Your daughter is gay,’ they can read that chapter… I love my work… I’d like to raise a generation that will say, ‘It’s not OK to hear that someone is suffering and oppressed, and just turn your back and walk away’. I want to write another book in the future about how God is bigger than we think, about why I call Her ‘She’ sometimes. To talk not in an academic, theological way, but in simple terms.”

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