October 30, 2005


(Edited version originally appeared in Genre magazine)

I've been on my knees in front of many older black men, but usually not in a
church environment. However, the soul-shaking singing voice of Archbishop
Carl Bean has brought entire dancefloors to their knees--I knew that's a
cheap "knees" segueway, but I have to draw in my readers with my first line
and let's face facts: you guys are probably cruising the back pages for
slutty underwear ads! So whether as a dj, songwriter, or as a just plain
gay, I was thrilled to kneel--I mean sit--down at his Unity Fellowship
Church in Los Angeles with the man behind the legendary 1977 gay anthem I
WAS BORN THIS WAY, which is being re-released on Mel Cheren's equally
legendary West End Records. Though it didn't achieve the chart success of
other gay anthems like MIGHTY REAL, IT'S RAINING MEN, I'M COMING OUT, I AM
WHAT I AM or PRIDE (A DEEPER LOVE), compared to to Carl's bold out message,
those anthems are still in the closet! Sample lyrics:

"I'm walking through life in nature's disguise
You laugh at me and you criticize
Cuz I'm happy, carefree and I'm gay
Ain't no fault it's a fact, I was born this way

Now I won't judge you, don't you judge me.
We're all the way nature meant us to be."

Gomi's excellent remix simply updates the drums and lets the glorious
original instrumentation by Philly legend Norman Harris do the rest. The
drummer on the original track is Ron "Have Mercy" Kersey, who, playing on
disco hits by groups like First Choice (DOCTOR LOVE, ARMED AND EXTREMELY
DANGEROUS) and the Salsoul Orchestra, laid the foundation for house music
and back-beat heavy songs like Madonna's VOGUE. So girls, put down your
tired, mass-marketed Britney and Jessica SImpson "songs" and check out a
truly gay artiste, with a fascinating life story. And it's just so
refreshing to hear an openly gay preacher with an inclusive message of "God
is Love" as opposed to hateful religious misleaders Pat Robertson who blames
everything from 9/11 to Katrina on gays.

Bean grew up in the 1940's Baltimore and claims "I couldn't come out of the
closet. I was never in it." Hanging out with femme queens, he mixed
baton-twirling with bible studies and glee club in a generally supportive
environment where even as a queen, he always felt a part of the community.
"There was never a sense of 'Get out!' Maybe because of segregation, there
was nowhere for us to go. We couldn't go to the white community, so there
was a sense of we're in this together and we must protect each other." But
when puberty hit, Carl's gayness became a threat to his family and suddenly
the dad tried to butch him up with sports gear. It didn't work (surprise,
surprise) and at the situation's ugliest moment, his family forced him to
eat out of a tin cup and plate, his mother saying "You know what THEY
do. He can't eat off of the plates, forks and spoons that we eat
out of anymore." Carl went from being "a super-supported kid who was smart
in school, had a voice in glee club to absolute lack of support all the way
around. I didn't know how to handle that. So I went upstairs one night, took
every pill in the medicine cabinet and went into my bedroom and pushed the
dresser up against the door. I left a little note that said "Mom and Dad, I
love you, but you don't love me anymore and I'm sorry for hurting you."

The suicide attempt failed and luckily Carl had a young doctor who did not
consider homosexuality a sickness. "The hand of God was clearly at
work". To recuperate on suicide watch, "I went to a place where only rich
kids would have gone in downtown Baltimore in one of the research hospitals
with tennis courts on the roof and swimming pools. It wasn't the poor
people's crazy house. This was pre-integration, so my little chocolate face
wasn't supposed to be in there, either. I was assigned a German doctor and
the Europeans had already said that homosexuality was a natural phenomenon
and was not a mental illness, so again, God stepped in." Affirming this idea
that being gay was ok, an orderly and another patient on suicide watch
"ended up having me". (Don't tell me, Carl. God sent those guys to have sex
with you in the psych ward? Ok, God, please deliver Matthew Rush and a
bottle of Rush at once--make it a rush order! Hallelujah!)

Carl felt the call of Greenwich Village-- "the beatniks, the poetry reading
and the beating of bongos and the Square! The Sloan Street YMCA opened my
world like I had never dreamt: the showers, the halls. They're's a lot of
me!" but Bean wound up living in Harlem where he came up with singers
Dionne Warwick and Whitney's mama Cissy Houston and appeared in early
productions of gospel musicals like YOUR ARMS TOO SHORT TO BOX WITH GOD,
hob-knobbing with the likes of Langston Hughes and Leonard Bernstein.
"Harlem was not homophobic", Bean recalls and cites the sell-out family
crowds of the drag Jewelbox Revue, which featured a young Dorian Corey, the
mesmerizing star of Paris Is Burning, as evidence.

Wanderlust overcame Carl's show biz aspirations and he left a hit show to
travel the country via Greyhound bus. His money ran out and he learned what
it is to be humble, which gave Christ's teachings new meanings. "I learned
what it is to stand on the corner with a man who had nothing but a bottle of
wine and offered me some." (I learned that too, Carl, but RuPaul's bottle was
empty and she was too drunk to realize it.) He wound up in South Central LA
where he worked at May Company department store and waited on Ella
Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Shirley Bassey and Diana Ross. The phone rang one
day and the caller identified themselves as Motown Records, then the biggest
black music label. Thinking it was a prank call from a friend, Carl cursed
at and hung up on the caller 3 times until Motown begged to send a messenger
with a letter on company stationery to verify their identity. They did, and
Berry Gordy boldly signed Carl to sing I Was Born This Way, to capitalize on
the popular disco market. Motown had also had success with The Dynamic
Superiors, a 70's soul group with a flaming false eyelash-wearing male lead
singer, but 1977 was before even Sylvester's hits, so Carl was truly
breaking gay ground here.

All of Carl's friends warned him that the song would be a career killer. But
Carl had learned early on to tune out dream killers who'd recommended that
despite his high grades, postal worker would be the best career choice for a
black boy. After meditation, "I heard from THE voice. And I knew, this is
not just a message song. This is the message song that YOU need to sing."
The recording session was equally spiritual."When I walked up to the mike, I
knew. This was beyond just singing for a hit. I stepped out of myself and
into the music. The spirit of God just began to sing through me." The
powerful anthem immediately climbed the charts. "I'm amazed at what this
song continues to do. This song has blessed my life and I've been able to
bless so many lives with it that it's like a fairy tale." (Pun possibly intended)

Horrified by the onset of AIDS, Carl asked to be released from his contract
in 1982. He felt his calling was to warn his people that AIDS was not a
white thing they could avoid. Though not formally trained, church officials
were so impressed by his dedication that after passing the oral and written
exams he was was ordained and started his Unity Fellowship Church. "I had
one shirt and one collar and I went to Aardvark's, a second hand store and
found a black jacket that was raggedy on the inside, but gorgeous on the
outside. So here I am in the heat of the day. People are asking me, 'Rev,
would you like to take your coat off?' And I'd say 'No, thank you.' Soaking
wet, but it was so raggedy inside." Fundraising was difficult and soon Carl
found himself ducking the landlord at his apartment and makeshift office. In
'86 Motown calls again, in the nick of time, to let Carl know that I Was
Born This Way has become a cult classic for a new generation of househeads
and that the original single is selling for $100 a pop. Plus, Next Plateau
Records has remixed the track and wants him to perform it on the East Coast.
"I said fine, as long as they paid me $1,000 every time I sang that song.
And they said fine." A white limousine was waiting at the NY airport and a
string of sold out club gigs (one had strippers in g-strings backing up the
Rev who was "in collar") enabled him to pay his debts back home and keep his
ministry going. An NAACP Image Award and almost 20 years later, the song is
popping up on not only as the West End remix, but also a compilation called
the Best of Motown Disco and the Pet Shop Boys' collection of favorite songs
in the Back To Mine series. "Amazing things have come from this song. I
still get letters from all over the world saying 'I was in the club dancing
and you came through the speakers, and I decided I wasn't going to kill
myself or I felt that God did love me and I felt connected to my sense of
church again."

Now 61, Carl says "I felt I needed to do music now because of the horrible
backlash of homophobia. Since the Bush administration we've had to lay off
3/4 of our staff. We're down to practiacally bare bones and asked to do more
than we've ever done. It's the ugliest thing. The youth in my church--black
kids, poor white kids, latin kids not yet 25 and full-blown. This
proliferation of meth leads to ferocious sexual appetites. And the
horrendous idea that there should be a constitutional amendment against us
having the freedom of celebrating our unions and being honored by church, by
family, by God! The idea that we would become the scapegoats for all this
horrible stuff that is happening in our society. That now the covers are off
because of Katrina, in many ways. You know you don't get by. You may think
you do, but it all comes out in the end. So this song coming back again?
Every time this song comes to me when God needs me to do something. I have
nothing to do with it." I dare to interrupt the Carl's sermon briefly to interject
"Well, your voice did make the song great." "Well, thank you, but the thing
is, at the time when God wanted me to respond to AIDS, this song came back
and provided money. Now there is a new era of young people coming down with
it, homophobia so strident, right-wing politicizing, hateful, ugly messages,
very un-American things taking place in society, and this song comes back to
me again so I know there must be some new challenge on the horizon. My
life's purpose is the liberation of gay and lesbian people and thereby the
liberation of all people. Because as Dr. King said, "Until all of us are
free, none of us are free.'" Amen, Rev Carl! You're an amazing human bean.
And could we ever use your uplifting message right about now!

To listen/purchase I Was Born This Way go to IWASBORNTHISWAY


Anonymous Anonymous said...

can bunny please provide a more friendly link to the song so we can buy it...their site is shite...has a piss poor design and would fail most usability tests...get them a geeky fag to help them clean up their act...

10:52 PM  
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10:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for interesting article.

3:55 PM  
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