The thing about trailblazers is they often don’t know that’s what they are. They’re either too busy doing it to spend any time pondering about how significant what they’re doing actually is – or they’re just far too humble to ever acknowledge it to themselves, let anyone else.
I don’t know which of these two categories Carl Bean fitted into. But one thing I can say for certain – as the world learns of the sad news that he’s died at the age of 77 – is he was ahead of the pack. Way ahead, in fact.
Bean was born in Baltimore on 26th May 1944. He was raised in the church, so had a natural affinity with music. He was also involved with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and it was here he learned about civil activism.
Bean had been aware of his own sexuality from a very early age. Knowing the church would strongly disapprove and suspecting the same of friends and family, he kept it quiet – until a deeply unpleasant episode at the age of 14 where he was outed. This led to a deep depression and a period of hospitalisation – and not of his own will.
Not surprisingly, he left home at the age of 16 to set up in the more metropolitan New York to pursue a career as a gospel singer. He spent over a decade working in the city, before another move in 1972 to Los Angeles – and it was here he formed a group called Carl Bean and Universal Love. Later in the decade, some Motown Records producers came across him signing and signed him to sing “I Was Born This Way”, originally by Bunny Jones.
Soon afterwards, he started his ministerial studies and was ordained by Archbishop William Morris O’Neill in 1982. He then made a pretty brave decision – to found his own church, Unity Fellowship of Christ. It was advertised in newspapers as a place where the gay community could study the Bible.
In 1985, he launched the Minority AIDS Project, at a time when the disease was new and poorly understood. The largely black community from which Bean came from were even more poorly supported than anyone else – which said something even by the standards of the time. The organisation offers prevention, care and treatment services for those living with the virus or at high risk of contracting it.
Bean continued to work tirelessly to represent and help his community over many years. A sign of how well liked he was can be seen in the comments for a recent fundraiser to relieve him of financial worry at a time of ill health. The fundraiser more than met its $15,000 target, helping ensure Bean’s final days were just that little bit less difficult.
Bishop Steven Sawyer, for example, said “When I was coming into my truth and struggling with my call, I reached out to him, not expecting I would get a reply from someone so busy building a movement. Bishop Bean call me personally and talked with me for over an hour, and continued to check in with me through the years”.
It’s no exaggeration to say his work, especially with Minority AIDS Project, saved a lot of lives. Sleep well, Carl…