Highly Sensitive Refuge
A close-up of a queer highly sensitive woman’s face painted in rainbow colors

The Joys and Challenges of Life as a Queer HSP

Slowly, my pride has replaced my shame — for both my queer and HSP identities.

Navigating life as an LGBTQ+ person who is also highly sensitive can be challenging. We experience invalidation of our identities by a heteronormative society (a world which largely views heteroosexual pairings as “the norm”). There is ambiguity and less of a script to follow in dating. Personal space violations occur when two women are out on a date together.

And yet there is also so much joy that comes from the experience. Aspects of it allow more richness and beauty into our lives. Our history of oppression and otherness makes the joy we experience all the more meaningful, for instance. Power and solidarity comes from chosen queer family and finding people who just get you.

As author Carolina de Robertis put it in an interview I had with her over Zoom, “To bravely resist the forces that would wish us to be diminished — that’s a real part of living as a queer person in this society. But another reality about queer existence is that it’s so beautiful, and so joyful.”

Here are some of the beauty these intersections of identity have brought to my life, as well as some of the challenges I’ve faced as a queer HSP.

3 Amazing Things About Being a Queer HSP

1. You get a major ‘boost’ from your chosen queer family.

Over the years, I’ve heard people say they “don’t see sexuality.” While I know it comes from a good place — they mean to say that they hold no prejudice — at times it feels invalidating because LGBTQ+ experiences are different. The way society regards my partner and me, as well as the unique challenges we face, differs. The recognition that sexism is amplified when two women are navigating the world together (as opposed to just one, or a female with a male partner) also sets our experiences apart.

Other queer people just get this. With them we don’t need to explain ourselves; they’ve been through it. There’s an unspoken understanding which can help to heal some of the past hurts, and even traumas.

My first gay friend was one I met in study hall in high school. We became friends almost instantly. There was an easy comfort and camaraderie between us. I remember we’d take trips to the bookstore Borders, where we’d spend hours in the Gay section, thumbing through stories of same-sex love that we both desperately wished to assume leading roles in. But, for the time being, this felt as though we could only experience it vicariously, side by side, with our backs against those bookshelves. 

In college, my world began to overflow with queer friends and acquaintances from different walks of life. Many HSPs find similar delight and comfort in having a chosen family. While others may say we’re “too sensitive” or that our emotions are “too much,” our fellow HSPs just “get” us. 

2. Queer joy — and pride — can light up your entire being.

In the early 1970s, the homophile movement emerged to promulgate the message “Gay is Good” (inspired by the Black Pride Movement). It encouraged gay affirmative therapies — whose goal was not to change, but find happiness with one’s orientation — over gay conversion therapies.

Many of us find ourselves embracing this ethos the more we step into our queer identities. Years before college, I never could have imagined that such a varied community of beautiful LGBTQ+ individuals awaited me later on. Little by little as the years passed, pride replaced shame — and, by now, the shame is entirely gone. Joy has replaced it.

My first Pride event back in 2010 epitomizes this feeling of boundless joy. I remember gallivanting with queer friends across San Francisco’s Civic Center lawn while the Backstreet Boys performed. The sun shone down and the cold beers were plentiful. It felt nothing short of glorious.

As HSPs, we’re good at taking in the positive. We experience both the good and the bad with all of our senses – we absorb others’ emotions whether we want to or not. The negative can feel obliterating sometimes, but when the positive presents itself, it can light up our entire being.

3. The experiences you share with your community lead to incredibly deep connection.

I feel like I’ve had wonderful, finishing-each-other’s-sentences types of chemistry with many of the women I’ve dated. We talk about our purpose, passions, hopes, and dreams. We talk about what we were like as kids. They know things about me that I’ve never told anyone. The same in reverse. Our conversations have often left both my mind and heart on fire after we parted ways. 

Maybe you feel this way with your LGBTQ+ partner. Like spending time with them is just so easy. There are so many aspects of your experience that they just understand automatically. Less of a chasm separates you. 

It’s also more likely, given gendered socialization, that your partner emotes freely (exceptions always exist, of course, and this isn’t a hard and fast rule). She knows how it feels to be told she’s “too emotional.” She hasn’t been taught to suppress it to the same extent that men have. Maybe because of this, she’s likely to be more understanding of your expression of emotion.

And we highly sensitive people thrive on deep connection with others. The same way we may have hid our queer identity, we’ve tried to hide our sensitive nature… until, one day, we embrace it instead of shun it

But being a queer HSP is not always easy…

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4 Challenges of Being a Queer HSP

1. Family rejection and biased assumptions

We all want to be seen, HSPs especially so. When we’re not, it’s painful — particularly when that invalidation comes from family. Though my own parents responded acceptingly, many people I have loved, been close to, or known more peripherally have experienced far harsher reception after coming out.

Beyond more extreme examples of outright rejection or refusal to speak to their child, parental rejection can (and often does) occur in subtler ways. As lesbian author Sarah Schulman wrote inher book, Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences, “Many gay people will say that their families are ‘fine.’ But when you ask for details, this means, basically, that the gay person hasn’t been completely excluded from family events. Or that their partner, if they have one, is allowed in the house. Very few experience their personhood, to be actively understood as equal to the heterosexual family members.”

This is devastating for everyone, but especially for HSPs. It creates cognitive dissonance. It creates a need to hide, compartmentalize, and tamp down the full range of who we are. How often have we been told to do this in other realms of our lives, especially in the context of our feeling “too much” and intense emotional experiences?

To this end, in The Coffey Times, they wrote how Matthew Weissman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C., works predominately with gay teens and adults — and how most of his patients struggle with some form of internalized homophobia. The root cause? Typically the home environment. 

2. There’s misogyny and objectification when two women are together.

Everything from minor come-ons to blatant harassments are unfortunate aspects of the lesbian date experience. We’re subject to constant space violations just from the mere fact of being a woman dressed up in public out with another woman. And we highly sensitive people like our personal space and HSP sanctuaries!

There’s also always the risk that this supposedly harmless behavior could escalate into more. At times, I’ve even felt like I’ve had to fear for my physical safety when walking next to a woman. One night, for example, a man followed a woman and me out of a bar and continued trailing us for several blocks. I remember feeling unsettled and unsure what to do. We were both short women (under 5’4”), without any Pepper Spray on us. Luckily, he eventually stopped, but still…

This often had me asking myself: How do you date in peace if it feels too soon for private venues, and public ones are open territory for constant interruption and space violation?

3. There’s a legacy of trauma within the community, which can create more stress in romantic relationships.

Families rejecting their LGBTQ+ kids, years of internalized or repressed homophobia, and a myriad of other things can create more stress than usual in a romantic relationship.

As a kid, I could fill endless pages of my diary with the foods I’d eaten that day — but when it came to my gay feelings, the most I could manage was to dance around the label. I’d take three pages to basically say “I have a crush on this girl” without actually saying it explicitly.

The shame that comes with being a queer kid in high school — especially back when it wasn’t as accepted, like in the early 2000s — can eat away at you. Like many, I grappled with internalized homophobia.

Even if we’d had an accepting family, none of us are completely impervious to the scars left behind by our collective history. Psychiatrists like Richard von Krafft-Ebing described homosexuality as a “degenerative sickness.” Until as late as 1973, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the handbook often used by clinicians, psychiatrists, and psychotherapists, listed it as a psychiatric disorder. 

Many of us carry some of this with us, at least to a certain degree. Research shows that mental health struggles are high in the LGBTQ+ community. HSPs already navigate intense emotional experiences. With more collective trauma to work through than the general population (this is not to say life is easy for anyone) — if not dealt with or worked through, we might find ourselves with a higher amount of relational stressors (through no fault of our own).

4. Gendered socialization makes the courting process less straightforward — for women, at least.

The courting phase of dating, or even meeting women to date to begin with, can be another challenge for us queer femmes. Due to heteronormative socialization, I think it’s generally harder for women than it is for men to act upon their desires (if not for anything more than years of muscle memory). We’re used to being courted. Society tells us to wait and attract. So what happens when both of you are women?

Once when a woman and I were in her hot tub on our third date, neither her nor I was initiating anything physical. That she was giving no signs of overt interest (in her body language or demeanor) confused me, because I’d thought that was why she’d invited me over in the first place.

Another example: It took almost five months (after initially meeting) for my college girlfriend and me to begin dating, too — and I probably never would have made a move had it not been for our mutual gay guy friend playing matchmaker.

As Soleil Ho facetiously put it in an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, “lesbian sheep syndrome” is a term that refers to “a common situation where two women are attracted to each other but, due to a combination of overthinking things and, at times, internalized homophobia, neither acts on that attraction.”

Similarly, as HSPs, we have a tendency to get caught up in our minds’ scuffle and clamor. This can lead to a flurry of brain activity when trying to read someone’s intentions, or pick up on their body language and nonverbal cues. (Are they apprehensive because they’re not into you, or because they haven’t been with a woman before and feel awkward?) The ambiguity and uncertainty can amplify distressing emotions and put our overthinking brains into overdrive.

If you are LGBTQ+ and also identify as HSP, know that you are not alone. The experience may not be convenient, but there is also so much beauty that comes with it. I believe things will continue to get better with time, as LGBTQ+ acceptance, as well as HSP acceptance, increases at the same time that our collective emotional literacy does with every new generation.

And, later this month, I look forward to celebrating my 12th year of Pride in San Francisco. Wherever you are in the country or world, I wish you all a Happy Pride Celebration, as well.

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