the ring by spring dilemma: lgbt edition

Note: I was originally going to post this later in the week, but after hearing a guest speaker in one of my classes this morning, I decided that it was worth posting today, even if it's a little later in the afternoon. Talking about some aspects of Bethel specific culture, she noted that having all of these expectations regarding relationships in college often sets up students for disappointment when things don't work out the way that they've romanticized them to be, something which I find to be especially true for Christian LGBT students who experience many of the same things in a college setting. So, yeah, that's just a little bit of the backstory behind this post. And again, as with any post I write, I'm not trying to attack anyone or anything necessarily. I just like to reflect on cultural elements and the impacts that they have that are often much larger and much farther reaching than many realize. Cool. Here we go.

If you go to, have ever been to, or perhaps even just heard of a Christian college, you’ve probably heard of the term “ring by spring.” For the uninformed, what this rhyming little cliché is talking about is the stereotypical understanding or assumption or expectation or whatever that by the spring semester of your senior year of college, you will or, perhaps more importantly should be engaged to the person you’re going to spend the rest of your life with. Yeah, essentially what “ring by spring” is saying is that you should probably be getting married the summer after you graduate from college, otherwise you don’t really have your life together, and you’re probably also not a good Christian, because otherwise God would’ve brought someone along by now. I hope that everyone can see the problem with this.

Obviously, when put like that, the entire notion of ring by spring sounds completely ridiculous, right? But unfortunately, just because something sounds illogical doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone feels like it is. I can say that just from pure observation, I see a number of people in my life who have bought into this idea in one form or another, and it’s really sad to be honest. And just as a disclaimer, I want to say that I’m definitely there with them some days. But that doesn't take away from how unhealthy this mindset is. People shouldn’t be expected to be getting married at 22 or 23 when it’s been demonstrated that people continue to mature and their brains continue to change until they’re about 25. Sure, that’s only two years, but a lot can change in two years, especially for people who are just emerging into the real world from the very sheltered bubble that Christian colleges often create.

Now, I’m not saying that it’s bad to get married right out of college. That’s totally fine. If you find someone that it works with, I wouldn’t tell you to wait until you’re 25 just for the sake of doing it. However, I do think that the expectation and the stereotype need to go, and there are lots of reasons people could appeal to for why that is. But I want to tweak the angle from which we see this just a little bit. Because, yeah, I think that we can all agree that the ring by spring thing is a little insane, but the fact of the matter is that it’s still this Christian cultural shadow that does actually affect people, and if it affects straight people so much, how much does it play into the lives of LGBT Christians? I’d say the impact is just as bad, if not worse.

Dating and marriage are already sort of touchy topics when it comes to LGBT Christians in the first place, for a myriad of reasons, and the added cultural pressure to have figured out that process and be settling down with someone by the time you graduate from college just makes that process all the messier. First of all, there’s the whole Side A/Side B situation that LGBT Christians need to wrestle through that will affect whether or not they can even envision themselves in a relationship with another person long-term. That in and of itself can take years to sort through and figure out, and to make matters more complicated, I’ve seen many people switch from Side B to Side A after a number of years, having to then wade through that transition as well.

That notwithstanding, depending on when you come out, you might already be far behind the dating game and have to make up for lost time, for lack of a better term. While most straight people probably have their first relationship in high school or even middle school, depending on what you consider to be a relationship, there are scores of LGBT Christians who don’t even come out until college or beyond, and if even if they were out sooner, they may have not have dated or had previous relationships as a result of family or church pressure. With that background in mind, the Christian cultural pressure of ring by spring can quickly morph from a silly little stereotype into an actual concern of whether you’re behind the curve or whether you’ll ever find someone, because everyone says that it’s harder to make friends, much less have relationships that work after college. And again, those are stereotypes, but what stereotype isn’t set in concrete when you’re already freaking out in your own mind, feeling pressure from every direction?

It might sound silly or like something that people just need to get over, but it can be a legitimate fear, especially for LGBT Christians. People would probably say that the dating pool is pretty small given the context of a Christian college, but then you add the whole LGBT layer on top of that, plus whatever personal preferences you might have, and that pool really starts to dry up for LGBT Christians. There’s always after college, people will say, but for LGBT Christians, that only means that it’ll get harder to find someone who holds the same beliefs, especially considering the still shaky dating/relationship situation that awaits them in most churches. All of a sudden, ring by spring starts sounding like their last and only hope of finding someone, which obviously isn’t true, but it can surely feel like the case while you’re in the thick of it.

Fortunately, it seems as if this stereotype is at least starting to fade out as Christian culture and its obsession and emphasis on marriage and relationships starts to ease up a little bit, but that doesn’t take away the massive cultural pressure that still exists in many Christian communities today and especially the exponentially dramatic impact that it has on LGBT Christians specifically, who already must wrestle with a plethora of other debates linked to this one.

So, while it may be funny to joke about things like ring by spring and who in your circle of friends is going to get married first, it’s worth reflecting on the deeper implications of what Christian culture feeds us and how that impacts us and our thinking about various issues and about life. Are the values that these cultural phenomena push really Biblical? Or do they rise out of a mish-mash of Christian, secular, and in this case, purity culture?

Just some food for thought to go with these reflections.