A Gay Grandson to an Evangelical Empire
The day of reckoning was set
in 2002. Randy Roberts Potts stood in the kitchen as everything was waking up.
He finally felt a spreading definition, a pulling value as though he had
remembered what he needed for the first time in all his 27 years on mortal
“I’m gay. I’m gay. I’m gay,”
Ten years later, Potts sits
in front of an emotional crowd — many of them Oral Roberts University alumni —
inside the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center to
speak about his perspective on faith and sexuality, as he often does as a member of the Liberty Education Forum's speakers bureau. He shakes his head, smiles a honeydew grin that belies
memories big enough to break through stained-glass windows, and then begins sharing
them. Potts continues to measure his former self — the closeted grandchild of
televangelist Oral Roberts — against the one we see onstage: a proud, openly
“It was a very slow process,” he told the crowd. “It took a
lot of years of therapy and learning to be OK with myself on a lot of levels,
not just sexually.”
Now Potts wants to share his
story of growing up on the Roberts compound under the banner of evangelical royalty,
coming out, and his personal faith journey with audiences throughout the United
States. This weekend he served as grand marshal for the AIDS Walk in Oklahoma, returning
to the home state of his grandfather’s spiritual kingdom.
Randy’s grandfather remained one of the best-known and controversial leaders inside
the American Pentecostal movement until his death in December 2009.
“I was not close to my
grandfather, even though my family lived about 20 yards away on the Roberts
compound in Tulsa,” he said.
Oral Roberts pioneered TV
evangelism, conducted more than 300 crusades on six continents, and founded
Oral Roberts University and the Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association —a holy
empire that was worth more than half a billion dollars. He would also achieve
worldwide notoriety after he claimed that God “would take him home” unless his
followers raised $8 million in cash.
“I was 12 years old then,
and, in the world I was living in, this wasn’t as unusual as you might expect,”
Potts said. “There was a rhyme and reason to everything in God’s world. If you
had a question, the Bible always had the answer.”
In 1982, uncle Ronnie — heir
to the Oral Roberts throne — committed suicide six months after he came out to
Troy Perry, founder of the first gay-friendly congregation in Los Angeles.
“Growing up, I didn’t know my
uncle was gay, but I always wanted to be like him,” Potts said. “I feel like my
life has mirrored his. Every time my mother mentioned him I noted two things:
one, that she had loved him more than she had ever loved anybody else; and two,
that the memory of his [gay] path brought more pain to her than any other
“I think my parents, like me,
at some level, always knew I was gay, and here my mother had just lost her
favorite brother, and in her mind, she lost him because he was gay. She was
scared I would turn out the same way. When I was 7, my mother explained that
gay meant when two men have sex with one another, and that God hates that so
much he burned up entire cities because of it. It was difficult to let go of
some of those fears that had been so ingrained in me.”
At age 18, Potts met a woman at
the University of Oklahoma. Two years later, they married. “I made it clear to
my wife when we started dating that I was attracted to men, but I also made it
clear that I loved her,” he said. “We were best friends.”
They eventually had kids and
they eventually started to fight every day. “We couldn’t agree on how to raise
them, and we spent a lot of time in marital counseling.” It was during this time, however, that Potts
started identifying as gay, which only increased the tension between the couple.
“There was no one particular day that I ‘came out’ to her. It was part of an
ongoing, 13-year conversation.”
After the divorce, Potts moved
to Dallas where he started to write. “I’m working on a book that is both a
personal history and a meditation on gay rights in America and how Christianity,
in particular, has shaped the discussion of those rights. I’m also working on
an off-Broadway play and occasionally writing for The Washington Post.
“In everything I do, I ask
myself if it will help make the world a better place for young gay men and
women growing up in households that tell them being gay is wrong. This is always on my mind.”
Although Potts never imagined
that he would work as a spokesman for gay rights — or identify as a gay man — he
said now is the appropriate time to put his uniform on and declare which side
“I am a man who loves men,
and I am proud to wear that uniform and fight for things like gay marriage, but
I also look forward to the day when I can take that uniform off and just be me,
a human being not defined by sexuality or religion or place or residence,” he
said. “I would like for there to be a day when all kids grow up in a world in
which they will not be judged negatively based on who they fall in love with.
This day is coming, faster than anybody ever expected it, and I’m happy to be a
part of that evolution.”
To start doing his part, Potts
worked with the It Gets Better video campaign. “I cried while watching the
original IGB videos,” he remembers. “I kept thinking that I wished those videos
had been around when I was in high school, or when my uncle was in high school.
Eventually, I felt like I should make one dedicated to my uncle.
“I read out loud a personal
diary note I had written to him when I came out then put the video of it up on
YouTube. I had never spoken publicly before, and I had several panic attacks,
but I’m glad I did it, as it has given a few young gay kids hope that things
will be OK.”