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The coaches and assistant coaches – from both the varsity team and the junior varsity team – surrounded me, scowling. Their faces were ruddy and red. They were going to have a “serious talk” with me. And by that, they meant that they were going to yell at me, curse me, call me every name they could think of, and—to be sure—question my sexual orientation.

My crime?

I wanted to quit the baseball team mid-season and, instead, join the spring musical “Guys and Dolls.”

It was the mid-1980s. Pali High. Although I was a pretty good hitter and enjoyed the smell of the grass in the outfield and joking around in the dugout with my friends, I just didn’t really care about the actual game. When I was walking to practice one Spring afternoon and happened to notice students dancing in one of the gyms, I asked what was going on. Someone said it was rehearsals for the upcoming musical, I knew what I had to do—sing and dance.

Goodbye cleats, mitt, and chew.  

Hello make-up, costumes, and step-ball-change!

The more the coaches yelled at me on that sunny afternoon, telling me that “winners never quit and quitters never win,” and the more they questioned my sexuality and overall manliness, the more I knew I was doing the right thing. Fuck these guys, I thought. It is my life. My choice. Indeed, quitting that baseball team at age 15 and joining the drama program was easily the best thing I ever did during high school. Self-defining. Meaning-making. Freeing.

And I’d like to think that, somewhere in the back of my mind, the freedom to be myself on that defiant, liberating day was bolstered by an old record I grew up listening to: Free to be You and Me.

2022 marks the fifty-year anniversary of one of the most profound, entertaining efforts to infuse American society with moral progress, appreciation of diversity, and a love for both equality and individual freedom — all delivered via catchy tunes and funny stories.

Featuring the talents of some of America’s greatest pop culture icons — such as Michael Jackson, Mel Brooks, Diana Ross, Kris Kristofferson, Harry Belafonte, Rita Coolidge, Dick Cavett, Rosey Grier, Alan Alda – Free to Be You and Me was the visionary creation of actress Marlo Thomas. A record with an accompanying book, released in 1972, the album went gold and the book was a best-seller; Free to be You and Me won both Emmy and Peabody awards, as well as a Grammy nomination.

Not only did I listen to Free to be You and Me as a little kid, but the songs and skits were regularly featured at the summer camps I attended. And then, while deep into the theater arts in high school – with those ruddy baseball coaches well in my rearview mirror – my fellow thespians and I performed those same songs and skits to various elementary schools around the city.

One of the biggest hits was always “Ladies First,” a story adapted by Mary Rodgers – based on a poem by Shel Silverstein – which reveals the dark and dangerous side of treating young ladies with some sort of paternalistic special care; a dainty “tender, sweet young thing” is always insisting that ladies go first to her advantage, until she finds herself on a jungle expedition, captured by a pack of hungry tigers. She’s the first to be eaten, of course.

Another crowd-pleaser was always “Boy Meets Girl” – co-written by Carl Reiner and Peter Stone – which features two new, very bald babies meeting each other in the hospital maternity ward, both having just been born. A wonderful spoof on gender stereotypes and expectations, this sketch gets children to see just how silly traditional notions of gender can be.

Once I got married, it was great to find that my wife still had her own, very worn-out copy of the album from when she was a child. We played it endlessly in our home as our own children were growing up. We also watched the television production together as a family, and we explained to our kids what was so remarkable about “Parents are People.” A song written by Carol Hall, it was performed by Marlo Thomas (a white woman) and Harry Belafonte (an African American man); featuring the two of them singing together as a couple, pushing strollers side by side, back in the early 1970s, was purposefully aimed at challenging the rigid, racist color line permeating American society. Indeed, by including so many African American performers throughout the TV special, “Free to Be You and Me” was a pioneering challenge to the nearly all-white casts of most television shows back then.

The production of  Free to Be You and Me—all the songs and skits—were based on several key premises: that traditional gender norms and stereotypes are limiting and harmful; that racial harmony is an ideal to strive for and enact; that children ought to be nurtured, supported, and loved for who they are and what they want to be; that emotions such as sadness and grief are healthy and normal; and that there is humor, happiness, and deep joy in this world. In sum, Free to be You and Me was about creating a brighter society, one with less inequality, less authoritarianism, less intolerance, less racism, less sexism, and more personal freedom, autonomy, and creativity.

But perhaps more interestingly—and certainly something never acknowledged—Free to Be You and Me was markedly humanistic in its secular orientation. This was a concerted effort, completely non-religious, to articulate and spread ethical ideals and moral values, to address this-worldly struggles with this-worldly solutions, and to enrich life and alleviate suffering, because such goals are worthy ends in and of themselves. There was nothing in this ethical enterprise about obeying the will of a Father God, nor threats of hell or promises of heaven, nor any power of prayer, nor any shame of sin or stain of redemptive blood. Just humor and heart in the service of making this world, in the here and now, a better, fairer place.

Perhaps more interestingly—and certainly something never acknowledged—Free to be You and Me was markedly humanistic in its secular orientation.

It is no coincidence that many of the underlying, humanistic values embedded in Free to be You and Me can be found aplenty among secular men and women today. For example, studies have found that secular parents tend to be much less authoritarian than religious parents, and they strongly believe in supporting the autonomy of their children, raising them with the ability to make their own choices and decisions about what they do or don’t believe in. Research has also found that secular people are also much less sexist and racist than their religious peers. Additionally, those societies that have secularized the most tend to have advanced the farthest in trying to achieve gender equality and rights for women.

My own son, now 15, plays soccer in high school. He loves it and is good at it. But when he was little, we enrolled him in ballet. He loved it and was good at that, too. However, at some point, he didn’t want to go anymore. And that was his choice. And if he wants to quit soccer one day, that’s fine, also. As Dan Greenberg’s poem “Don’t Dress Your Cat in an Apron” from Free to be You and Me declares at the end: “a person should do what he likes to / a person’s a person that way.”

No, such an ethos doesn’t mean that people should be free to harm others, to destroy the planet, or torture small animals. It simply means that people—and yes, even children—should be allowed to decide for themselves what gives them joy, what gives their lives meaning, and what their identity might consist of. It is a deeply secular orientation, and one trumpeted proudly in Free To Be You and Me – for half a century now.

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Phil Zuckerman is the author of several books, including What It Means to be Moral (Counterpoint, 2019) The Nonreligious (Oxford, 2016), Living the Secular Life (Penguin, 2014), Faith No More (Oxford,...