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The Costs And Benefits Of Coming Out Of The Closet In China

Zhang Xiaobai learned the hard way just how difficult it can be to live openly as a homosexual in China. Being honest about his sexual orientation allowed Zhang to embrace his true identity, but cost him custody of his son and sparked a cold war with his

Chinese gay rights demonstrators in Los Angeles, California
Chinese gay rights demonstrators in Los Angeles, California
A Kuai

After he left Tianjin last year, Zhang Xiaobai realized that homosexuals are not "rare birds."

When he was still in primary school, Zhang (not his real name) found that he was attracted to boys. Particularly after each Physical Education class, when he looked at the sweat-soaked back of a boy he liked, he felt dazed. The feeling got stronger when he entered high school and fell secretly amorous of a tall and strong classmate. He was always eager to approach him and became very fascinated with the occasional moment of physical contact.

That was in the mid-1990s, when the term homosexuality was far from ordinary in Chinese people's life. Zhang couldn't find anyone similar to him, and he thought he was strange. He couldn't tell his parents, sure that they wouldn't be able to understand. "I was trying to hide it from everybody. Nobody told me this is normal," Zhang recalls. "I felt like I was sick."

After graduating from university, family and friends were enthusiastic to fix him up with a girl. He didn't know how to refuse and finally yielded to the pressure, and married a girl that his parents liked. He was hounded by feelings of guilt and inadequacy. "But if I can't possibly love her, I can at least try my best to be a good husband." So as not to disappoint his parents, they also had a son right after being married.

Each Valentine's Day and on their wedding anniversary, he would buy her flowers and gifts, trying to compensate materially for his missing heart.

Life went by. Nothing changed for more than 10 years. And then he started logging into the online world where gay Chinese interact. When he joined some chat forums, sometimes people wanted to meet him: but he never accepted the invitation.

In 2009, Zhang took a work trip to Beijing. One night, after coming out of a bar, he saw another bar at the other side of the road. He had seen the name mentioned so many times in a forum, a "shrine" for homosexuals, like Dongdan Park, said to be the biggest gathering place in the world for gays.

He knew there were similar places back in Tianjin, but the risk was too high that he might bump into acquaintances.

The next day, he went to the bar without letting his colleague know. The atmosphere was very relaxed. Like other bars , there were people trying to strike up conversations, flirting. For the first time in his 30 years of life he was not denying his own identity. He talked to all kinds of people, from from different professions. There were company employees, lawyers, and a lot of media people.

In comparison with the digital world, the live encounter with other gays was a shock to him. When he finished his mission and went back to Tianjin, he was determined to leave his job. He told his family he wanted to look for advancement in Beijing. Nobody understood why. He just told them "I'm already 30-something. It will be too late if I don't think for myself."

First Love

His wife stayed in Tianjin. They had grown apart gradually. She no longer demanded that he always come home. He made a lot of acquaintances, and then he found his lover, a designer in his 30s.

This is the first love of his life. Like other couples, they go to films, choose together which restaurants to go to after work. Though they kept two separate places, Zhang is very stable in his relationships. He feels that he has found a new direction for his life. For the first time he doesn't feel so bad being gay. His friends and colleagues accept who he is. He is finally completely relaxed.

It went on for about a year like this until 2010. He was going home to Tianjin less and less frequently. He felt he was no longer able to leave his boyfriend. He decided it was time to tell his family.

"I knew I had to be courageous. But it was too difficult for me to continue with two emotions at the same time. I was prepared to break up with my family."

After New Year's day this year, Zhang invited his wife, his parents and parents-in-law to a meal. He announced the truth near the end of the meal. The fathers didn't quite believe him, everybody at the dinner table was startled. Then his mother, who suffers from hypertension, fainted on the spot. His wife smacked his face and left. He cried and knelt in front of his father beside the hospital bed of his mother, asking for forgiveness.

"It was really like a second-rate TV drama. The whole family was crying. I had never imagined that it would ever happen to me."

Zhang's wife divorced him without any hesitation, and won full custody of their son. Relatives scolded him, calling him irresponsible. He tries to appease everybody with money. He gave his house to his ex-wife, and pays to support his parents. This is the cost of coming out. Zhang's parents are still in a cold war with him. His mother won't even speak to him. The only thing he worries about is whether or not his son will suffer from being laughed at when his friends find out that his father is gay.

Nevertheless, Zhang does not think his life is a tragedy. At least, now he's living according to his true identity. Every time he hears that some "comrade" plans to get married, he always tells them of his own experience. "Don't try to solve the problem by getting married. It will only hurt more people."

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Life On "Mars": With The Teams Simulating Space Missions Under A Dome

A niche research community plays out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another planet.

Photo of a person in a space suit walking toward the ​Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

At the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

Sarah Scoles

In November 2022, Tara Sweeney’s plane landed on Thwaites Glacier, a 74,000-square-mile mass of frozen water in West Antarctica. She arrived with an international research team to study the glacier’s geology and ice fabric, and how its ice melt might contribute to sea level rise. But while near Earth’s southernmost point, Sweeney kept thinking about the moon.

“It felt every bit of what I think it will feel like being a space explorer,” said Sweeney, a former Air Force officer who’s now working on a doctorate in lunar geology at the University of Texas at El Paso. “You have all of these resources, and you get to be the one to go out and do the exploring and do the science. And that was really spectacular.”

That similarity is why space scientists study the physiology and psychology of people living in Antarctic and other remote outposts: For around 25 years, people have played out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another world. Polar explorers are, in a way, analogous to astronauts who land on alien planets. And while Sweeney wasn’t technically on an “analog astronaut” mission — her primary objective being the geological exploration of Earth — her days played out much the same as a space explorer’s might.

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