“I Was Born This Way” is a 1970s disco song, co-written by Bunny Jones and Chris Spierer, and released on Gaiee Records. With lyrics that openly celebrate Gay identity, “I Was Born This Way” undermined the silence surrounding disco music as a Gay folk’s genre by combining Gay-affirming lyrics set to the disco beat prevalent at the time in dance music.
Originally recorded by a Gay Black singer named Valentino, “I Was Born This Way” was first released on Bunny Jones’ Gaiee Records in 1975. In the article, “About ‘I Was Born This Way,’” Jones said, “I wanted to give gay people a [record] label they could call home.” Jones, a Straight Black woman, owned beauty salons in Harlem, and had many Gay employees. “I began to feel that gays are more suppressed than blacks, Chicanos or other minorities. You hear of great designers or famous hairdressers, and that’s about as far as society will let gays go.” Jones sold the record from the trunk of her car.
Despite the implicit association of disco with the Gay community, the release of “I Was Born This Way” was controversial because of its explicitly Gay lyrics:
I’m walking through life in nature’s disguise
You laugh at me and you criticize
‘Cause I’m happy, carefree and gay
I was born this way
Such open expression of Gay pride was substantially different from the Village People, a disco group who performed macho homoerotic archetypes onstage as cop, Indian chief, cowboy, soldier, construction worker, and Leatherman/biker. The Village People playfully referred to Gay topics in their lyrics with frequent use of tongue-in-cheek double-entendre. Although the members of the group might suggest they were Gay, they never confirmed it one way or the other.
The sense of the unease caused by “I Was Born This Way” can be seen in Billboard, February 22, 1975 column, “Disco Action” by record producer Tom Moulton (who got his start when a continuous-play tape of his was featured at the Sandpiper, a Gay club on Fire Island):
Most controversial record this week is “I Was Born This Way” by Valentino on Gaiee Records, on which a young man sings about his homosexuality, how happy he is and how others put him down because they don’t understand. Feelings on the disc are mixed, as some think it offensive, others think it is a great cut.
Motown and Carl Bean
Jones sold 15,000 copies of the Valentino version before Motown Records expressed interest in re-releasing the song with a new singer, Carl Bean, who had recently moved to Los Angeles. “They came looking for me and they didn’t even know I was gay,” Bean said. “Bunny heard my voice on a gospel album and told the people that she wanted me for the single.” With backup singers Sweet Inspirations made up of Estelle Brown, Sylvia Shamwell, and Myrna Smith, Bean’s churchy (gospel-style) rendition was remixed and released through West End Records as a long-playing disco single. Bean described what the song meant to him: “’I Was Born This Way’ is God’s way of making a statement through me.”
Bean came out to his foster parents when he was twelve, and the resulting uproar and pastoral counseling drove him to attempt suicide. He then moved in with his birth mother, who was more accepting of him. Bean did not abandon Christianity because he met people in church who did not condemn him, including his Baptist minister. As an adult, he sang with gospel choirs such as the Gospel Chimes and Gospel Wonders. He joined the Alex Bradford Singers, and was in productions of Black Nativity by Langston Hughes and Your Arms Are Too Short to Box With God by Bradford and Micki Grant.
Bean had joined the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), a religious denomination dedicated to the Gay community, when he moved to Los Angeles. After being ordained in the MCC, he founded the Unity Fellowship of Christ Church in 1985 and, in 1990, the Unity Fellowship Church Movement (UFCM) with chapters in twelve cities, over which he presides as archbishop. The motto he chose for his denomination is “God is Love and Love is for Everyone.” Bean also founded the Minority AIDS Project (MAP), which has received support from notable members of the African American community such as US Representative Maxine Waters and singer Dionne Warwick.
In 2011, pop singer Lady Gaga released “Born This Way,” a different song that also became iconic in the LGBTQ community. “Born This Way” has the following lyrics:
No matter gay, straight or bi
Lesbian, transgendered life
I’m on the right track, baby
I was born to survive
There is also the repeating campy statement: “Don’t be a drag, just be a queen.”
J.D. Doyle on “I Was Born This Way”
J.D. Doyle, creator of the highly influential Queer Music Heritage website (a comprehensive site dedicated to Gay-related musical recordings), said the following about “I Was Born This Way” for www.westendrecords.com:
I feel that most if not all of the so-called “Gay Anthems” have no right to that title, as they are sung by straight people and actually make no mention of anything gay. A prime example is “We Are Family” … don’t get me started. It’s long overdue that we claim for our own a song that is truly gay and truly proud, and Carl Bean’s “I Was Born This Way” definitely has the history and musical chops to fill that bill.
“About ‘I Was Born This Way’.” Carl Bean I Was Born This Way. http://www.westendrecords.com/WES5014-2/about.html#about_song, accessed July 2010.
Moulton, Tom. “Disco Action” column in Billboard, February 22, 1975.
Rapp, Linda. “Carl Bean.” GLBTQ: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture. http://www.glbtq.com/contributors/bio_183.html, accessed July 2010.
www.queermusicheritage.us, accessed July 2010.