Oh there ain't no other way
Baby I was born this way
Right track baby I was born this way
Pop into a gay bar this month, or walk the streets of West Hollywood any time of the year, and at some point, you’ll no doubt hear that simple yet iconic chorus. Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” was released in 2011 and almost instantly became a hit among the gay community, even being dubbed the unofficial “gay anthem” by the Rocketman himself, Sir Elton John. It’s a song about love, acceptance, and living your truth. And for a certain demographic, it’s a chorus that can only be sung one way - at the very top of your lungs.
The backlash to the song quickly followed its release, however. According to critics, Gaga had done nothing more than rip off Madonna’s hit 1989 hit “Express Yourself,” which had a very similar beat and spoken word refrain. And while there may have been some influence, there’s actually more to the origin story of “Born This Way.”
According to an interview with Howard Stern in 2011, Lady Gaga said her inspiration came from “... a preacher, Carl Bean, in Los Angeles, and I believe he's gay. And he has a song called "Born This Way". And it's, like, this big sort of - it's almost like a sermon... I heard this song. And I just said, man, does that answer every question.”
“I Was Born This Way” was, in fact, a gay liberation anthem by Carl Bean that swept disco clubs around the country in the late 1970s. The original lyrics belted by so many young queer folks today actually started out as:
I'm walking through life, in nature's disguise
You laugh at me and you criticize,
'cause I'm happy, carefree and gay - Yes, I'm gay
I'm happy - I'm carefree - I'm gay
I was born this way
“When I hear that someone is inspired by something I did I feel good about it,” says Carl Bean when asked about Lady Gaga’s song and its inspiration. “I inspired a young person who is very talented, a go-getter.”
A young singer in New York in the 1960s, Bean started out in gospel but was quickly drawn to a new genre known at the time as “Message Music.” Unlike traditional love songs or heartbreak ballads, the goal of message music was to address cultural issues such as the Vietnam war, drugs, or civil rights. Around this time Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions out of Chicago had "Move On Up" and "People Get Ready," James Brown had "Say It Loud—I'm Black and I'm Proud," and Aretha had "Young, Gifted and Black."
“I just knew that that’s the direction I wanted to go. That’s why my talent was given to me, to cause people to think about what they’re doing and how it relates to other people” says Bean.
Eventually, Bean left New York and its gospel backdrop and made his way west to test his true music mettle. Landing in Los Angeles in the mid-70s, he put together a demo tape of original songs, eventually leading to a contract at ABC Records and then the legendary Motown Records with Barry Gordy, Jr. Motown was having some luck in the Message genre, as well as starting to break into the growing pop and disco scenes, and Gordy had a song that he thought Bean could deliver on.
“I Was Born This Way” had been released in 1975 by another young singer named Valentino, and had done moderately well in the London scene but hadn’t quite really taken off in the US. More bouncy and chorale, it didn’t quite have the driving disco beat popular at the time. Gordy and Motown gave the song to Bean and let him go to town.
“I left gospel because I wanted to sing message music, but I had no idea this was what I was being called toward,” Bean recalls when he first read the lyrics. “I was openly gay, but never thought I’d sing about being gay. Maybe fatherhood, brotherhood, sisterhood, etc. But to get a record in the 70s with the word ‘gay’, I never would have believed that when I was on the greyhound from NY to LA!”
As he tried to learn the melody, it became clear the song wasn’t going to work. It was too Broadway, not enough funky disco. As Bean and his backup singers, The Sweet Inspirations, started changing things around and putting their stamp on the music, he began ad-libbing his own lyrics, a version of which would eventually become the final recording. “You know, this was a chance to make a statement in the community. For people not to look at us just as sexual beings, but has fully developed humans with all the emotions. So we took it to church.”
Today Carl Bean is a retired minister living in South Los Angeles. During the height of his success, he began to hear stories of friends who were becoming sick and eventually dying, falling victim to a growing yet mysterious health crisis that was sweeping the nation but still had no official name. It was at Ralph’s grocery store that Bean remembers finding his second calling. After seeing a magazine cover in the checkout aisle featuring a side-by-side photo of a popular female impersonator in New York - showing him both healthy and sick - he knew he needed to help spread the word about the disease that would come to be known as AIDS.
“That picture haunted me. I couldn’t be silent with this. I felt led to do something. So I just started gathering all the info I could get.”
The more Bean volunteered with local organizations both in West Hollywood and San Francisco, the more he learned about AIDS, and the stats that were coming out of the CDC at the time were troubling for him. “It was women, children, straight people, but most of them were black and brown. Clearly, the community didn’t know about it.” With new urgency to sound the alarm and inform people Bean started his own non-profit, the Minority Aids Project, based in south central Los Angeles that focused on spreading information among the black community.
His work with the Minority Aids Project and his background in gospel music and ministry would also lead Bean to found the Unity Fellowship Church, a religious community that would be particularly welcoming of lesbian, gay and bisexual African Americans.
But even as he was branching out into a new life of civic and spiritual duty, the song that brought him so much joy would come back into his life one more time.
In the late 90s, as Bean was working to get the Minority Aids Project off the ground, the non-profit quickly found itself strapped for cash and on the verge of having to shut its doors for good. That’s when he got the call from Robert Gordie.
“Robert Gordy, Barry Gordy’s brother, called and said, “people are looking for you!” Someone had put ‘I Was Born This Way’ back on the turntable and it was popular in the clubs again. And they wanted me to come and perform it live. I couldn’t believe it!” Bean told Robert Gordy that he would go, but wanted a fee of $1,000 a performance. By the end of what turned out to be a club tour through New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, Bean returned to L.A. with roughly $30,000 to put toward his non-profit.
“I'm grateful for that record… This song continually blessed my life to do great work in our community,” says Bean when he reflects on the impact of “I Was Born This Way.”
“When Gaga did [hers], I felt the same way, knowing that it’s in the ears of young kids who might have given up and wondering if they should end it. I feel great that it’s in the ears of those who need it most.”