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A Gay Grandson to an Evangelical Empire

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 earth.

"I'm gay. I'm gay. I'm gay," he realized.

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 gay man.

"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 memory.

"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 he's on.

"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."

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