When most people think of “Philadelphia Freedom,” a single refrain comes to mind: “I lo-o-ove you/Yes I do!” They’re hard-pressed to remember the rest of the words, because as with many of Elton John’s songs, the lyrics are kind of oblique. He wrote the song with Bernie Taupin in 1975 for Billie Jean King, drawing inspiration from her pioneering mixed-gender tennis team, the Philadelphia Freedoms, with a melody that nodded to the great Philly soul sounds of Gamble and Huff. But it took me decades to understand that the song wasn’t really about tennis, or Philadelphia — which is why it came to resonate so much more with me.
I was a 6-year-old working-class tomboy when I first heard “Philadelphia Freedom.” It figured prominently into the city’s 1976 Bicentennial celebration, then later at parades, sporting events, pretty much every occasion that called for civic pride. Yes, there are over-the-top flutes, horns and strings. Yes, the man singing about how freedom “took him knee-high to a man” wears glittery suits, sequined hats and bedazzled eyewear — and calls himself Captain Fantastic. But if you noticed any of that, someone would inevitably call you out: “What are you — gay?”
Throughout my teens, the same rule applied to Queen, Culture Club, Judas Priest and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. High school was an exercise in camouflage and self-erasure. The unspoken code was “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Then came AIDS and the outing of closeted musicians, movie stars and politicians. Outing was the opposite of pride, but at least the closet doors began to budge.
After I graduated, I landed at Hampshire College, a tiny experimental school in western Massachusetts that felt like an upside-down world. There it was so cool to be queer that even the straight kids tried it. We took classes in gender theory, queer cinema and representations of AIDS. Busloads of us went to D.C. for the 1993 March on Washington, where we were joined by a million leather daddies, drag queens, dykes on bikes, teachers, farmers, parents and kids. We joined AIDS activists for a “die-in” in front of the White House to memorialize those lost to the government’s inaction on the pandemic. We held hands, danced and flirted with strangers. Elton had come out. Billie Jean was taking ownership of her identity. I started to hear “Philadelphia Freedom” differently, letting myself experience the song as the wink it was intended to be.