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    What a Difference 17 Years Make: Cicadas and LGBTIQ Equality

    By Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis–

    2021 is a special year. Although cicadas and their sonorous sounds are a regular part of summer in much of the world, this summer trillions of cicadas who have an unusual 17-year life cycle will emerge from beneath the earth in the eastern United States. The last time these cicadas saw the light of day, it was 2004. Gavin Newsom had just burst open the doors of San Francisco City Hall for same-sex couples to marry. Massachusetts had recently become the first state in the union with marriage equality. The national freedom to marry movement was in its nascence.

    Those cicadas spent very little time above ground back then; they were newly hatched nymphs that quickly burrowed below to feed, grow, and live for the next 17 years. During that time, the marriage equality and LGBTIQ rights movements grew and gained momentum, too. Many challenges arose, including 31 states voting to prohibit same-sex marriage from 2004–2008. But the tireless work of countless LGBTIQ people and their supporters means that today these teenage cicadas resurface into a country that has had nationwide marriage equality for six years. And the nation has never had a more pro-LGBTIQ president and vice president than Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

    We can’t help but wonder if the cicadas actually burrowed underground in 2004 to flee the presidency of George W. Bush, who advocated a federal Constitutional Amendment to ban same-sex marriage, and remained there until Trump and Pence no longer occupied the White House.

    Recent public opinion polling also shows nationwide support for marriage equality at an all-time high of 70 percent, with 83 percent of the nation favoring laws prohibiting anti-LGBTIQ discrimination in employment, public accommodations, and housing. A recent study revealed that a whopping 66% of age 13–18 gay and bisexual boys are now out to their female parents, with 49% out to their male parents. We envision those percentages only rising.

    Interestingly, the first thing a cicada does after it tunnels its way back above ground is to come out. It sheds its golden, nymphal exoskeleton, leaving it behind forever. Its soft, vulnerable body is nearly translucent, but soon gains strength and color, soars upward, and begins to sing. Cicadas’ pervasive, all-consuming hum is beloved by many as a daily auditory reminder of the bounteous warmth of summer. This year, we think of them as an operatic chorus, proclaiming, “Love Wins.”

    The revered Japanese haiku master Bashō, who was also queer, described this process over 300 years ago:

    The shell of a cicada;
    It sang itself
    Utterly away.

    (Translation by R.H. Blyth.)

    Murasaki Shikibu, in her 11th century novel Tales of Genji, also likened a lover shedding their robe to a cicada’s molting its outer shell.

    A cicada’s sound derives from its vibrating body, shaped similarly to a violin with a resonating inner chamber. Millions of cicadas vocalizing together powerfully amplify their voices, such that every 17 years can become deafening to those who try to resist it. They are nothing short of “loud and proud.”

    We think of the power of the voices of the LGBTIQ community and our supporters both individually and collectively. For instance, when Proposition 8 took away same-sex couples’ hard-fought right to marry in California, a nationwide no-H8 LGBTIQ movement arose louder, stronger, and more numerous than ever before. It ultimately led to the U.S. Supreme Court establishing nationwide marriage equality in 2015 and prohibiting anti-LGBTIQ employment discrimination last year.

    Today, our movement’s success has spawned another backlash. This time, it’s a wholesale Republican-led attack on the health, well-being, and civil rights of transgender and gender non-binary people, coupled with a cynical campaign to justify blatant discrimination against LGBTIQ people under the guise of religious freedom. We and our allies must summon the same strength, political commitment, and determination to give voice to the truth of our lives as we’ve done before.

    Poignantly, an individual cicada only lives at most a few weeks above ground as an adult, but collectively their sound permeates the consciousness of all those who hear it. Although many struggles remain, we can only imagine what a difference the next 17 years of our movement will make to the lives of LGBTIQ people when the next generation of these cicadas emerges in 2038.

    Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis, together for over three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. Their leadership in the grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA contributed in 2015 to making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.

    Published on May 20, 2021