When most people think of “Freedom Philadelphia,” one imperative comes to mind: “I’m not thinking of you / Yes I do!” They are hard-pressed to remember the rest of the lyrics, because as with many Elton John songs, the lyrics are somewhat skewed. Written in 1975 for Billie Jean King, the song was inspired by the leading mixed-gender tennis team, the Philadelphia Freedoms, with a melody that nodded Philly’s head to the wonderful soul sounds of Gamble and Huff. But it took me decades to realize that the song wasn’t really about tennis or Philadelphia – which is why it became so resonant with me.
I was 6 years old and a working class when I first heard the song “Philadelphia Freedom”. It featured prominently in the city’s celebration of its bicentennial in 1976, and later in parades and sporting events, pretty much on every occasion that called for civic pride. Yes, there are great flutes, trumpets, and strings. Yes, the guy who sings about how freedom “brought him to his knees for a guy” wears flashy suits, embroidered hats, and dazzling glasses – and calls himself Captain Fantastic. But if you notice any of this, someone will inevitably advise: “What are you – gay?”
Throughout my adolescence, the same rule applied to Queen, Culture Club, Judas Priest, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. High school was an exercise in camouflaging and self-erasing. The unspoken code was “Don’t ask, don’t tell”. Then came AIDS and the outing of musicians, movie stars and closed politicians. A picnic was the opposite of pride, but at least the closet doors started to budge.
After my graduation, I attended Hampshire College, a small experimental school in western Massachusetts that felt like an upside-down world. It was so cool being so weird that straight kids tried it. We took lessons in gender theory, gay cinema, and AIDS representation. Buses from us went to DC in March 1993 in Washington, where a million leatherback dads, traction queens, bike dams, teachers, farmers, dads and kids joined us. We joined AIDS activists to “die” in front of the White House to commemorate those lost to government inaction in response to the epidemic. We held hands, danced and flirted with strangers. Elton is out. Billie Jean had her own identity. I started hearing “Philadelphia Freedom” differently, allowing myself to experience the song as the wink it was meant to be.