On a late-fall night in Dallas, Randy Roberts Potts is pushing the gay agenda by watching TV. And by ironing a shirt. Also by doing a puzzle, vacuuming a rug, simmering stew in a slow-cooker, and intermittently stroking the nape of his boyfriend Keaton's neck in a subdued, abstracted manner, the way his Munna might have stroked his hair when he was a child. It could be a typically staid and eventless evening for Randy, with one fat exception: He's doing all this on a 6-by-16-foot set on a patch of downtown sidewalk, surrounded by drifting crowds of passersby.
With folded arms and befuddled frowns, the onlookers try to make sense of the scene—to the right, atop rugs laid directly on the concrete, there's a farm table and a bookcase stocked with cans of black-eyed peas and stewed tomatoes; to the left, a leather couch sits before a black-and-white television on which a silvery episode of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp is flickering. A few of them lean in to read a printed explanation affixed to a coatrack up front. THE GAY AGENDA, it explains, IS PERFORMANCE ART DESIGNED TO FOSTER LOVE AND ACCEPTANCE. Huh. They glance up at Randy—he's dipping a spoon into the slow-cooker now, or studying the half-done puzzle—and then lower their gaze back to the paper. In capital letters, they see: THE GAY AGENDA AS CONCEIVED SHOULD BE INCREDIBLY BORING TO WATCH.
Some shrug and wander off. Others remain, transfixed. And still others—nodding, smiling—break onto the set for a burst of encouragement. "You should take this thing to state fairs," bubbles a middle-aged guy, his wife nodding gamely beside him. "Anywhere there's a Miss Corn or a Miss Hog."
A crooked grin spreads across Randy's face. He is 37, with gray-flecked hair and a light scruff of beard; tonight he's dressed in a green-and-white baseball T-shirt, gray suit pants, and black Crocs, with a driving cap tilting toward his drowsily downturned eyes. "State fairs," he tells the guy, "might be dangerous."
Randy is, nonetheless, taking this willfully unentertaining show on the road. Tonight's performance in his adopted hometown of Dallas is a dress rehearsal for a tour that kicks off in February in Oklahoma City. He'll follow that with stops in Jackson, Mississippi; Omaha, Nebraska; Birmingham, Alabama; and several other midsize red-state cities, with either him and his boyfriend or a local same-sex couple going about their humdrum business behind glass in rented storefronts for two days. The idea is to show the neutral, domestic side of gay couplehood—the 99 percent of quotidian gay life, according to Randy, that's identical to straight life. "It's a visual that people haven't ever really seen in conservative towns," he explains. "A lot of people immediately jump to images of sex or a pride parade. Well, here's another visual. This is what gay couples look like when we're together as a couple in love. There's really nothing to watch, and I want to leave people with that impression. Psychologically, visual images like that go a lot deeper."
It's a vaguely subversive idea—the antithesis of the "We're here, we're queer, get used to it" ethos, a strategic divorcing of homosexuality from sexuality, a tent-revival effort to de-fabulize gay stereotypes. Yet the subversiveness extends far deeper than that. If any of the onlookers look closely enough, they'll notice a black-and-white portrait on the coffee table. Some might recognize the man in the frame: the late Oral Roberts, America's original celebrity televangelist and faith healer, the Oklahoma preacher who rammed Pentecostalism into the American mainstream and the taproot out of which bloomed Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, and Jim Bakker. No doubt those keen-eyed onlookers will presume this to be a cheeky jibe, an ironic detail tucked mischievously into this Ozzie-and-Harriet tableau. But it's not. That's Randy's grandfather in that photo, the man whose influence on American life and politics Randy is quietly—and often painfully—trying to upend.
Randy Roberts Potts grew up on "the compound." That's what the family called it; that's what everybody called it. By the time Randy was born, in 1974, Oral Roberts had already amassed a huge financial empire through a fund-raising tactic he called Seed-Faith: Give to God (via Oral), and God would give back unto you—in pyramid-level multiples, or so went the sales pitch. Those seeds—cash and checks mailed in from all over the world, some of them addressed merely to "Oral Roberts, U.S.A."—afforded the preacher a 6,328-square-foot mansion on the top of a grassy hill in Tulsa, where he and his wife, Evelyn, lived. A short ways downslope stood two other houses, one for his son Richard and the other for his daughter, Roberta, Randy's mother. (Oral was so fond of the Roberts name that he paid Roberta $1,000 to make it Randy's middle name.) Electrified stockade fences ringed the compound; armed guards patrolled it. For a backyard annex, young Randy had the campus of Oral Roberts University, which Oral founded in 1963 and which, with nearly 4,000 students, remains one of the largest charismatic-Christian universities in the world. (Most famous alums: Michele Bachmann and Ned Flanders.) "I could go to any game and they'd know who I was," Randy recalls. "If I went to the concession stand and ordered a Coke, they'd just give it to me because I was Oral's grandson. My brother and I would ride our four-wheelers all over campus. We had keys that would open every door in the university." Randy was a member of the royal family, a Pentecostal princeling.
From an early age, however, a different fate loomed. He recalls the moment he sensed it, at age 7: "I was talking to my mom and made some comment to the effect that Strawberry Shortcake"—the cartoon character, not the dessert—"was really gay. She immediately took it as a teaching moment. Gay, she said, is when two men have sex with one another, and God hates it so much that he burned whole cities to the ground because of it." He felt his small chest sink. "I was very conscious of liking Bo and Luke more than Daisy on The Dukes of Hazzard, so all of a sudden I knew that I had something to do with gay but I didn't really know what it was, and now all of a sudden I knew how God felt about gay," he says. "It was an instant 'Oh shit.'"
Randy didn't know it at the time, but another member of the Roberts family had been grappling with a larger, more devastating version of the same issue. This was his uncle Ronnie, Oral's firstborn son and, for a time, the presumed heir to the worldwide ministry. But Ronnie's fate had swerved as well: By all accounts a brilliant man, fluent in five languages, with a master's degree in linguistics, he'd chafed at the Holy Roller mantle he was supposed to inherit, rebelling with cigarettes, booze, and a beard. There was one reason: Ronnie, a father of two, was gay. In 1982, nine months after being arrested for forging cough-medicine prescriptions and six months after privately coming out to a sympathetic minister, he drove 15 miles out of Tulsa and shot himself in the heart. In his eulogy for Ronnie, Oral remembered him as "a 3-year-old singing hymns, as a 5-year-old reciting his father's sermons, as a man who was never quite the same after a tour of duty during Vietnam."
Randy's life, after adolescence, seemed to be rolling on a parallel track. Like his uncle, he developed an intellectual bent. His younger brother, Stephen, recalls, "We both became bookworms." In their insulated lives on the compound, he says, "that's all we had." Erika Olsen, a high-school friend of Randy's, remembers him as "the embodiment of the poet and writer. A little more worldly, beyond his years, but searching." The religious indoctrination he'd experienced on the compound—"three Sunday services, two in the morning and one at night; chapel at school every other day; praise-and-worship things and Bible studies at the house"—began to crumble, and the Oral Roberts legacy, once a boon, began to feel like a burden. "I really ran from it," Randy says. "Crazy preacher grandfather and all that. I wouldn't talk about my past or that I grew up on the compound. I'd just kind of overlook that." When it came time for college, Randy chose to attend the University of Oklahoma over ORU. During his first week there, however, he met a girl who reminded him of his grandmother —"Munna" to Randy and Stephen. Certain of his attraction to men by this time, he says, he confessed it to the girl, Robyn, with the caveat that he never wanted to act on it. A year later, when he asked Robyn to marry him, she said yes. A job teaching middle-school English and three children followed: Life, as he thought it was intended to be.