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 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.
Within the space of a few years, the world appeared to be catching up. Celebrities became self-declared queer icons. “Gayborhoods” sprang up in cities and towns across America. In 1999, my girlfriend and I had a commitment ceremony in Washington, then a Massachusetts marriage in 2004 and a Connecticut civil union in 2007, which was eventually recognized as marriage in every state. Rainbow flags went mainstream, even corporate. It seemed like progress — but when we had kids, things changed.
My wife is cisgender. I’m genderqueer. Strangers would often stop us on the street to tell us how cute our kids were, then look at me and ask quizzically, “Are you the … ? ” Things only got worse when we moved to a short-term rental in a suburb in Westchester County, N.Y., where we were the only visible two-mom family. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t look like my kids’ mom — it was that I didn’t look like anyone’s mom.
An athleisure army of other mothers stared me down at school visits, tracking my movements en route to parent-teacher conferences and classroom celebrations. Sometimes they asked me what my husband did. More often they smiled tensely, as it wasn’t clear if I had one or was one. I discovered that visibility is complicated — it’s not only what you reveal but what others are willing to see.
So when my son’s second-grade teacher sent out an email to parents asking for volunteers to give presentations about our hometowns, I said yes. Standing in front of a classroom filled with 6- and 7-year-olds, I started clicking through slides of Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell and “Rocky.” The kids weren’t connecting; they just sat there fidgeting. But then I pulled up a photo of Billie Jean King and Elton John and started blasting “Philadelphia Freedom” from my laptop.
When the first bars rang out and Elton sang, “I used to be a rolling stone, you know/If the cause was right,” I didn’t know what would happen next. But the kids started dancing. So did the teacher. Of course, no one caught the rest of the words, but Billie Jean was right when she said it’s the feeling of freedom people hear in the song that matters most.
Without Billie Jean King, there is no Megan Rapinoe. Without Elton John, there is no Lil Nas X. We still have a lot of work to do, but equality isn’t achieved simply by playing the game. It’s done by showing up, even when the court isn’t ready for us. That is why I see “Philadelphia Freedom” not simply as a gay anthem, but a pride anthem. It’s a song about what it feels like when we manifest our truest, fullest and freest selves.
The first time I heard it, I was the same age as these kids. Maybe some of them will grow up to be queer or genderqueer, and in some hazy way, maybe they’ll remember the day at school when they experienced a tiny flicker of affirmation. Others will just remember the music and the pretzels I handed out at the end. That’s OK, too.
Allyson McCabe is a music journalist based in New York.