Different but the Same: Lessons Learned from Educating GLBTQ Gifted Adolescents

By Jennifer Broome, Ph.D.

July, 2014

Since 2001, I’ve been working with a very specific twice-exceptional population: gifted adolescents who are also gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or questioning their sexuality (GLBTQ). Along the way, I’ve made mistakes (and learned from them), but I’ve also managed to shepherd my 2e teens through some very rocky shoals and into adulthood. Here’s a small sampling of what I’ve learned.

Lesson One: They Develop Asynchronously.

Linda Silverman’s writings on asynchronous development (1983, 1997) are of particular relevance to this twice-exceptional population. Asynchronous development refers to the idea that gifted students develop in ways characterized by complexity, unevenness, intensity, social alienation, and vulnerability. While asynchronous development can have negative aspects, it can also be a largely positive phenomenon. Many GLBTQ adolescents struggle not only with levels of knowledge that are beyond their age peers’, they also demonstrate more fully developed senses of empathy and caring. The acknowledgment that they are in a minority group can make GLBTQ teens more sensitive and attentive to the needs of others. It can also help these students articulate ideas of social justice, compassion, and empathy that are more similar to adults’ views than teenagers’. As a teacher, I’ve found one of my major roles with this population is to help them work through and voice these feelings. Many times, having an adult who truly listens to them is vital to managing the negative aspects of asynchronous development and cherishing the positive aspects. 

Lesson Two: There Is No Normal Distribution.

It’s tempting, when writing or thinking about a group, to focus on their similarities. This tendency becomes especially problematic when dealing with this 2e population. Some gifted LGBTQ adolescents enter high school already identifying as a minority population, while others will deny this identity until college or adulthood. Over the years, I’ve noted a significant increase in the number parents who champion their child’s GLBTQ identity. Other parents, unfortunately, struggle with the desire to change their child or “fix” what they view as a problem. Some GLBTQ students demonstrate a love of the fine arts; others are more at home in an auto repair shop. I’ve worked with GLBTQ punk rock fans, Teen Republicans, musical theatre buffs, science fair enthusiasts, honor roll members, and potential dropouts. This 2e population is as diverse as the larger adolescent population, and it’s a mistake to assume that they have one outlook, one set of problems, or one group of solutions. 

Lesson Three: They’re Still Adolescents.

GLBTQ gifted adolescents are working through a conflict Erikson identified as “Identity versus Role Confusion.” These students are groping towards their place in the world and, just as importantly, a personal conception of their identity. This internal conflict can be exacerbated by their sexual/gender identity, but it’s a mistake to assume that their GLBTQ status is the sole cause of their problems. GLBTQ adolescents sometimes don’t do their homework. They miss their curfew. They text message when they should be taking notes in class. They get traffic tickets. These issues generally have very little (if anything) to do with their sexual/gender identity and everything to do with the simple fact that they’re teenagers. Not only is it insulting to these students to assume their gender/sexual identity is their entire identity, it also can prevent teachers from seeing the adolescent in question as a whole, complex human being. Educators working with this population must keep in mind this fact if they are to provide support and guidance to this 2e population. 

Conclusion

In preparation for this article, I invited former students of mine who are GLBTQ/gifted to send me their recollections of my classes. One student, who wants to be known as Luke, had this to say:

The undeniable fact…is that I felt comfortable and normal in her classes because it did not matter if I was gay or straight, we were all there to learn.... I went through some troubling things but I had two rocks in my school, one being Dr. Broome. She helped me realize it didn’t matter if I am gay, it doesn’t make me different.

These students are truly “different, but the same”; and it’s imperative that we, as educators, recognize this fact. We’re there to help all students, but these twice-exceptional populations have specific needs that differ from other students’ in a sexual/gender majority. At the same time, we should never lose sight of the fact that these students are struggling with the same problems as “straight” teens. This is a delicate balancing act, to be sure, but one that educators have an ethical imperative to attempt. 

Bibliography

Silverman, L. K. (1983). Issues in affective development of the gifted. In J. VanTassel-Baska (Ed.), Practical guide to counseling the gifted in a school setting (pp. 6-21). Reston, VA: Council for Exceptional Children.

Silverman, L. K. (1997). The construct of asynchronous development. Peabody Journal of Education, 72, 36-58.

 

Jennifer BroomeJennifer Broome, Ph.D., is Head of School at Longleaf School of the Arts, a charter high school in Raleigh, North Carolina. She has worked with gifted adolescents in both urban and rural areas as a teacher, counselor, and administrator. Her research interests include attitudes of gifted teachers towards their gifted students; the role institutional culture plays in teacher retention; and the benefits of teaching fiction in schools. A hopeless bibliophile, Jennifer is often found reading with her cat Mycroft.    

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