Real Roles: Benjamin T.

1. What’s your name? Where do you live? How old are you?

My name is Benjamin T., and I just moved to San Francisco. I’m 31. 

2. Where did you grow up and how would you describe your childhood?

I grew up mostly in Austin, Texas, and Portland, Oregon. In Texas, I was raised in an overwhelmingly poor neighborhood, as one of the only white kids there. I didn’t realize as a child that would be odd or helpful in my formative experiences until I moved to Oregon, which is one of the whitest places in America. I’ve been grateful for the rest of my life that I have a wide breadth of experience of the way people live, and the experiences of the poor, and of immigrants in America.

My childhood was tough. Both my parents had various drug habits, though thankfully, marijuana was the only mainstay. My father worked 12-hour days in an incredibly stressful job, investigating child sexual abuse for the state of Texas. When he was there, he was angry and ferocious. My mother was perennially suicidal and clinically depressed, and every few months, once I passed the age of 5, I had to intervene to stop her from killing herself. My only sibling, an older brother, was evaluated for sociopathic tendencies when he was six, due to the extremity of the violence he directed toward me. I ended up covered in scars, mostly physical, but some mental, as a result.

My parents split when I was 9, and after some back and forth, we moved to Oregon when I was 12. We struggled mightily there, and I moved out to be on my own when I was 16, having already dropped out of both middle school and college.

It was a struggle, but I managed to work three jobs and start at a community college. Thankfully, I did well, and college proved a sanctuary for me.

3. How would you describe your current family and close support community?

I was disowned when I was 16, and am estranged from my extremely violent brother, as he has both borderline personality disorder, and is bipolar. The only real family I have is my father, who lives in Dallas-Fort Worth. During college, our relationship mended, and he’s been my only real family since then.

My close support community is, however, broad and deep. I have a very loving community of people I’ve built up over the years who are extremely close to me. Part of that is that I found my community here in Portland among people who almost uniformly live in polyamorous lifestyles, or who are gay or lesbian. As a result, few of us have children, all live far from families, and many shared sexual/emotional connections exist. As a result, and perhaps unexpectedly, my friends consist almost entirely of gay/bisexual women, and the community of competitive cyclists and mountaineers here in Portland. Broadly, these people are positive, progressive, active, and joyful. It’s a wonderful community.

4. What are some of the things you do on an average day?

Excluding mundane activities like brushing one’s teeth and eating, right now it involves working in my new office, taking care of errands and online needs, and then either biking, running, lifting weights, going to the rock gym, walking my dog, or hiking. Also, I read books or blogs for about two to three hours everyday.

5. What do you do to pay the bills?

I’m an institutional investment consultant, managing assets for cities and states, as long as the total retirement system has assets greater than $1 billion.

6. Does your life look like what you imagined it would when you were young? 

When I was young involves a really long, indefinite period. I still think of myself as young. The answer depends on my mood at the time considered. I, like all young people, had melodramatic depressive periods, and some of optimism. What I imagined when I was young was that I would be multilingual, well-traveled, working in politics or economics, and doing some good to change the world. I thought I’d be highly educated, and a man of the world. Well, I have three degrees, and studied at Oxford and Harvard, and work protecting public pensions as a consultant, making great pay, and overseeing billions in public assets. I speak three languages, and am generally known for being a polymath by most who know me, or work with me. So, thankfully, I am one of the very few for whom most of the optimistic vision came true. However, I also thought I’d be married, and that I’d be a father. This, unfortunately, has eluded me. Twice engaged, never married, and recently broken up from my partner of seven years, I am still seeking that special someone.

7. What is the greatest challenge you’ve faced in your life?

Perhaps oddly, I’ve never thought of an answer to this particular question before. I think it would probably be fighting through several years of a failing relationship, and remaining loyal. If not that, then dealing with a family in which every other member is either mentally ill, addicted to drugs, or prone to fits of violent rage. I’m not sure which of those things was harder, but each of them took nearly everything I had to withstand them. Physically, I’d say climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

8. Have you made any decisions or choices that have surprised those around you?

Yes, far too many to count. I’m a businessman among poly Burners, a straight man among lesbians, an alternative lifestyle adherent among financial consultants, an Ivy Leaguer among poor Texans, and on and on. Everywhere I go, everything I do, I forge my own path, standing alone in doing so, because the breadth of my experiences separates me from everyone. 

9. Who have you looked to for inspiration while creating your life? What have they taught you?

I rarely look to others for inspiration. I’ve long known that I just want to try as hard as I can, all the time, and be a good man. If anyone is my inspiration, it would be my oldest friend. He once asked me a question, when I explained I did something half-assed. He asked, “Wait, you don’t do everything to the best of your ability? Why?” Aaron also came from obscurity, and rose to elite special forces roles in the military, before earning his MA at Harvard as well. Together we taught each other what our fathers didn’t. 

10. What TV shows, movies, music, or books have been particularly formative or important in your life?

The Grapes of Wrath was like a story of my family, as both grandparents were from farming families in Texas and Oklahoma who lost their farms and fortunes. My grandfather went from being a homeless man riding the rails to the head of the Mexican Desk at the State Department. I have taken a lot of inspiration from reading that book, and then seeing the Joads live on, Phoenix-like. It tells me that we renew with every generation, and can live on to become what we dream; if not always, then some of the time. I am rarely inspired by art, but I think I am very lucky to have had a father who sang Peter Paul and Mary, protest songs, and union hymns to me as a small child. I grew up to hate war, and to remember the dignity of the dreams of the poor.

11. Are there any stories not told in media that you’d like to see represented?

Yes. There are many, but here are a few:

I’d like to see the media tell the truth about the dignity of those who tried to be Andrew Carnegie in the script our culture has of the Horatio Alger myth. However, I want that dignity to be in their bravery and discipline, but not in their reward with money and fame. I HATE the Horatio Alger myth, and the mythology that everyone who tries hard will achieve their dreams. It’s a lie, and it’s a vicious—if hopeful—lie, because it encourages those who give their all and risk life and limb, but still fail, to tell themselves that the system is fair, and to blame themselves for their failures. It encourages self-hatred among the poor, and worship of wealth and privilege, because it subtly implies that extreme inequality is justified by virtue of the good qualities of those with wealth and power.

I also want people to see more about the beauty of alternative family modes of living, from poly communities, to gay and lesbian couples. There is love we are refusing to focus on, and I want that love shown proudly and loudly.

Finally, I’d love to see more depictions of people being rewarded for living in a positive, optimistic fashion. Our nation does not revere intelligence, patience, and calm. Our media encourages everyone to think that all decisions and ideologies are inherently and unquestionably dichotomous, and they are not. I’d very much like to see more of the joys that come from living a rewarding life of the mind, and more praise and glory for those who teach to bring that reality about.

12. How often do you think about gender roles and whether your life matches what others might expect from your gender?

Daily? It’s very front and center in my life, due to my sexual lifestyle, and due to having spent so much time with bisexual partners (over 10 years total now).

And no, I don’t really match what people expect of me. Physically, I’m an extremely imposing man, 6’4″, 255 lbs, a power lifter, climber, endurance athlete, and martial artist. I’m trained with guns and other weapons, and my best friend since my youth is a special forces sniper. I basically define alpha male. However, I am a progressive, poly, extremely loving man, and member of PFLAG and the HRC. Despite my southern upbringing and business man exterior, in my private activism, I’m an attack dog for the progressive left, and will forever remain so. So, if you’re part of that group, consider me an undercover agent on your behalf inside the higher reaches of the patriarchy.

13. What wisdom have you gained in life that you think other people would benefit from knowing?

I think one of the most critical things I have learned is that human beings are systems, we are finite, and our strengths—be it moral, intellectual, or physical—must be maintained in balance, and with an awareness and respect for that fragility. I’ve learned that our thinking does not operate as we think it does, and so constantly seeking new knowledge, with an open mind, and a rigorous approach to acquisition of knowledge can lead to a shockingly fulfilling life.

I’ve also learned that you must always have the courage to try. When I was at Oxford, I was just under two years removed from being a high school dropout. I didn’t really believe in myself. I was talking to a friend I’d made in the debating society who was a Rhodes Scholar. He asked me once why most people don’t win the Rhodes. I tried various guesses—not enough athletic prowess? No demonstrated leadership? No connections? “No,” he said, “…it’s because they don’t apply.” That one always stuck with me.

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