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Pride & Joy wellbeing for our gifted rainbow kids

It is not until the Kea soars that we get to truly appreciate it’s magnificence. In addition to their uniquely recognisable qualities and abilities, such as curiosity, problem-solving and focus, Kea are also a visual feast for the eye. Stunning plumage ranges from the subtle hues of green for purposes of camouflage, to the vibrant blues, reds and yellows - colours which only show as flashes of brilliance unless in mid-flight. It is only with the right conditions, that we have the privilege of bearing witness to these extraordinary creatures in flight, as they show their true colours for all to see.

If you are familiar with previous contributions I have made to the annual New Zealand Gifted Awareness Blog Tours, you may recognise my use of Kea as a metaphor for describing gifted characteristics (See I just want to fly and How do you see me?). Indeed, it seems as fitting as ever as I begin my writing this year with a less explored dimension in mind: authentic expression of the gifted self, specifically with regards to notions of liminality and gender identity.

As noted in Te Ara, the encyclopaedia of [Aotearoa] New Zealand, “Gender diversity has existed throughout history and across cultures. The concept is based on a distinction between sex (the physical characteristics that identify individuals as male or female) and gender (an individual’s sense of being a man or a woman, or a combination of these)”. Psychotherapist, Lisa Marchiano (2017) has noted patterns among her clients which suggest that “Rates of gender dysphoria in children and young people have increased dramatically in a short period of time” and suggests that there is “evidence that significant numbers of those who experience dysphoria are gifted”.

This is corroborated by research reported by Terry Friedrich who purportedly states that, “approximately 30% of gifted children are LGBTQ or “Questioning”” (see A Proud LGBTQ Ally and Parent). Even higher rates are suggested by Lisa Littman (2019, p. 19) in relation to a subset of the trans population who experience rapid onset of dysphoria, who found that of 256 adolescent and young adults (AYA) “nearly half (47.4%) of the AYAs had been formally diagnosed as academically gifted, 4.3% had a learning disability, 10.7% were both gifted and learning disabled, and 37.5% were neither”. These, to my mind, are profound statistics.

With a glimmer of cheekiness in her eye, she said, “it’s the most representative flag yet, as the lines aren’t all straight”.

In an abstract for the 2019 World Conference for Gifted and Talented Children submitted by Terence Friedrichs (U.S.), Fiona Smith (Australia), Frans Corten (Netherlands), Susan Jackson and Orla Dunne (Canada), it was described that, “Gifted LGBTQ youth are safer and happier in some parts of the world than they have been in previous times. Yet, depending on their nation and sector of their country, these youth face very different situations in terms of the extent to which they have access to resources that empirically-supported research has shown to be necessary, including physical safety, psychological support, teaching role models, LGBTQ curriculum, and professional learning for their educators to support all of these elements”. This is unsurprising given the range of geopolitical and religious beliefs, but is a clear and blatant reminder of the need to advocate for change.

It is certainly a starting point that some “Educators and researchers have acknowledged identity issues associated with GTC [gifted, talented and creative] children and young adults. Those labelled as gifted often experience feelings of loneliness and isolation, and may choose solitude over socialization ... For those who desire social contact, gifted students may reject their label [in order] to fit in with non-gifted peers ... [while] LGBTIQ students must function in school environments where they would like people to accept their true identities. Nonetheless, teachers and parents frequently inform them—directly and indirectly—of the intolerability of their true identities” (Wexelbaum and Hoover, 2014). I feel the need to note here, that on a personal level, the term “issues” really grates with me as it is a loaded term.

Beautiful people

So, what might this mean for our young people of Aotearoa who share this dual identity of gifted and LGBTIQ+, and how we can support them to develop a strong, positive identity that serves to strengthen resilience and support wellbeing?

Again, those of you who have engaged in previous blogs I have written are unlikely to be surprised to hear me say that it all needs to begin with practising compassion and empathy, and the need to come alongside our young people to get to know them better, to try to see through their eyes, and imagine what it might be like to walk a mile in their shoes. Which, incidentally, provides a beautiful segue to mention one of the most powerful socially-focused arts project I have come across to date.

Walk a mile in my shoes was a temporary participatory art project run a number of years ago by the Empathy Museum - the name given to a series of participatory art projects dedicated to helping us look at the world through other people's eyes. People passing by were invited to enter a ‘shoe store’ designed as a giant shoebox, wherein they were fitted with a pair of shoes, lent a set of headphones, and a story to listen to from the former owners of the shoes, while they literally walked a mile-long journey to the river and back. As Lyn Gardener of The Guardian wrote, “They could be a pair of waders belonging to a sewage worker, the tottering high heels of a drag queen, the sturdy boots of a diamond miner, or the threadbare footwear of a refugee“. A project such as this strikes me an incredibly powerful, yet non-threatening way to begin to consider the world through the perspective of others.

Before we delve more deeply into how else we might support our young gifted rainbow kids, I ask that you take the time to read the following brief article, before returning for the next section which will lead us into practical strategies we can employ.

Wexelbaum and Hoover suggest that “GTC [gifted, talented and creative] students who find it difficult to relate to their peers - particularly the highly gifted - may fall in love with someone of the same sex with whom they share common interests and the same worldview”, something which I would dare to suggest underpins most relationships disregarding gender or sexual identity. What troubles me though is the suggestion that gifted young people feeling isolated, misunderstood and lonely is so prevalent and, even more worrisome, the belief held by many among this group of adolescents and young adults, that sexual activity is a way to somehow shift beyond this.

What I take from this is the urgency for facilitating opportunities that support our young people to a) develop deeper levels of understanding of self, and b) recognise shared experiences with those who are gifted, those who are LGBTIQ+, and those with duality, and c) appreciate what healthy relationships look, sound, and feel like.

Thankfully, there is a myriad of ways in which we can be more responsive. For example, Hutchison and Tieso (2014) explored coping mechanisms through dialogue with 12 LGBTIQ+ university students. Through this the following were identified as pivotal ways to get through the school years as someone identifying as gifted and LGBTIQ+. These include finding supportive groups of friends; hiding or downplaying their rainbow identity; participating in extracurricular activities; confiding in supportive teachers; developing their writing, musical, and leadership talents; and, conducting research to understand and develop their identity. From these strategies, we can infer the need to:

  • ensure that there are opportunities for meaningful connections to be formed, with rainbow youth groups accessible and safe, and opportunities for time with like-minded gifted peers
  • create opportunities at school where it is safe for young people to freely express themselves as their authentic selves in the way that they choose, helping to minimise the likelihood of toxic shame and the corresponding potential for trauma.
  • make sure young people know who are allies within the school environment and therefore safe, accessible to ask for support and guidance as needed.
  • provide clear and appropriate processes for ally’s providing this support, as well as having a network of to draw on if necessary as a means of mitigating compassion fatigue, secondary or vicarious trauma.
  • review practices to maintain a focus on strengths-based approaches.
  • promote opportunities for creative expression - particularly for those who may be seeking this avenue to share their voice

Words of wisdom for specifically supporting autistic, gifted, LGBTIQ+ individuals are shared by Emily Brook’s (2014), who offers the following insightful advice: “To reach the autism, adapt to the young people’s abilities with individualized disability supports. To reach the giftedness, let them know you value their talents by challenging them while engaging them on the topic of gender and sexuality. And to reach the gender-nonconformity or queerness, offer unconditional encouragement and emotional support.” I find it interesting to see how the author has approached this from each unique aspect of identity in focus, but would offer caution around her suggestion regarding challenge, urging this to be extended to consistently include areas of strengths and interests too.

Through our behaviours, we mirror to our young people their self-worth. What messages are you sending?

In specifically seeking to explore the social-emotional challenges arising for those who identify as gifted and LGBTIQ+, Treat (2016) identifies six areas of unique challenge specific to their lived experiences. These include: violence, harassment and/or discrimination; gender-varied interests and/or behaviours; lack of role models; isolation; heightened sensitivities; and lack of inclusive language. In a direct response to these research findings, Sedilo identifies appropriate recourse to help mitigate each of these, including but not limited to the following (see source for full recommendations):

  • making visibly safe, inclusive spaces;
  • reinforcing inclusionary practices; having clear and open policies to respond in a timely way to violence, harassment and discrimination and, maintaining an active review cycle for anti-discrimination policies;
  • honouring gender diversity within the curriculum and conversations, with specific inclusion of gender diverse role models;
  • supporting the development of self advocacy skills amongst students, and supporting skill development in advocacy for family, friends and peers;
  • explicitly teaching about gifted development and experiences, and in particular about sensitivities and overexcitablities (and I would add here intensities, asynchrony (uneven development) and liminality too); and,
  • using gender neutral terms, and ensuring the use of preferred names and pronouns (and yes, it’s natural to trip up with this when making the shift along-side the young person, going from using the name and/or gender assigned to them at birth to their preferred name, gender and pronouns, but practice improves proficiency).

We can begin to see how the different aspects of research are beginning to weave together a robust evidence-base to guide professional practice, both within the educational sector and that of health services, both of which have, along with the central role of family and immediate community, huge roles to play in the wellbeing of our gifted LGBTIQ+ youth.

Another perspective worthy of awareness is that from those who have desisted from a transgender identity, also referred to as detransitioning. Lisa Marciano (2017) cites a higher than expected prevalence of transitioning among those with Aspergers, shedding light on an array of research as well as experiences from those in the field. Further to this, is an equally poignant finding that a larger than expected proportion of those autistics who have transitioned tend, after some time, to detransition. She proposes some unique attributes of those with autism and/or whom are gifted, that she believes contributes to these phenomenon.

Many of these are aspects already covered in this blog, however some not yet considered here include: an awareness of difference from an early age (read a seminal piece from Miraca Gross on this); propensity for being bullied for being different and subsequent attempts of escapism from bullying via transition; the existential thinking common to gifted learners which leads to questioning everything, as highlighted in the quote below; as well as the roles of perfectionism and anxiety.

“In reality, most GTC [gifted, talented, creative] students think outside the box and most will challenge what a teacher or peer presents as “the facts” if they have read, experienced, or discovered something different” - Wexelbaum and Hoover, 2014

Again, these are important aspects we need to consider when we are seeking to wrap supports around our young gifted LGBTIQ+ kids for the purposes of promoting good health, positive development and wellbeing.

So where to from here then? Well, the American National Association for Gifted Children have compiled a fabulous ‘gifted LGBTQ toolbox’ which is freely available to use. I highly recommend you take the time to explore this rich resource as you being to consider, having engaged in the contents of this blog, what the impacts on your practice might be,

More beautiful people.

If there is one message that I hope you will take away with you from this blog, it’s that it’s not our place to deny another their reality, but rather, to lift each other up through love, empathy, connectedness and community. To deny is to destroy; undermining someone’s reality serves only to cause trauma.

It’s not our place to deny another of their reality, but rather, to lift each other up through love, empathy, connectedness and community.
Flying the colours for gifted LGBTIQ+ youth.

To members of the LGBTIQ+ community reading this,

I am aware that I am writing from a place of privilege, and also as a cisgender, heterosexual woman, and that this influences my perceptions and expression on this topic. Further to this, I would like to add to that I am blessed and privileged to play a significant role in the life of a wonderful trans youth whom I hold very dear to my heart, and many others who identify as LGBTIQ+ or questioning. As such, I can only hope that you will appreciate the intentions of this blog as being nothing less than an offering of love and support, and do not take offence at anything I may have offered that was unwittingly insensitive or inappropriate. In saying that, please don’t hesitate to educate me!

On that note, I strongly encourage you to be courageous and speak up, to use your voice (however that might feel right to you) and teach us of your experiences and how we as educators, health care professional and anyone else in a supporting role, can better serve to empower LGBTIQ+ youth to thrive and flourish, and in particular, promote wellbeing for our gifted rainbow kids.

This blog is dedicated to all who seek to survive, thrive, and flourish as well beings. May you fly free and soar.

Vanessa White is a specialist educator in gifted education, who advocates fiercely for the infusion of trauma-informed practices across all spheres of practice and life. She runs Lifting the Lid, a gifted education consultancy service, along-side Hello Calm, an endeavour which is aimed at supporting young people who experience anxiety and/or live with the ongoing impacts of trauma, and the resulting dysregulated stress response. Vanessa will be speaking at the upcoming Gifted Wellbeing conference being hosted by the Aotearoa New Zealand Association for Gifted Children in September 2020, where she will present on anxiety and resilience in gifted kids.

This blog was written for the Aotearoa New Zealand Gifted Awareness Week Blog Tour 2020, the theme of which is "gifted wellbeing: a no limits approach".

Photo credits

Kea by Karl Anderson, rainbow painting by Steve Johnson, burqa queens by Liam McGarry, teen with rainbow shirt by Jennifer Marquez ,equality by Elyssa Fahndrich, girl by Sharon McCutcheon, sad youth by Iz zy , love who you are by Sharon McCutcheon, rainbow lights by Jason Leung, I love you this much by Robin Benzrihem, rainbow heart by Sharon McCutcheon, wall art by Tim Mossholder, rainbow hair by Tommy van Kessel, walking tall by Melody Jacob. Rainbow face paint by Mick de Paola ,welcome by Belinda Fewings, rainbow balloon by Stavrialena Gongzhufen, smilie rainbow flag by Ana Moreno, hand by Sharon McCutcheon, love is love by Yoav Hornung, bridge by Dominik Lalic, born this way by Levi Saunders, three friends by Zachary Nelson , happy young lady by Mick de Paola , banner in trees by Cody Chan, feather by photostockeditor.