Left: American televangelist Oral Roberts. Photo: Getty Images Right: Roberts' grandson, Randy Roberts Potts of The Gay Agenda.
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.
In retrospect, he sees a "crippled version" of himself as a married, closeted gay man: "I was incredibly shy. I muttered. I didn't want anybody to hear me speak. If I had to get up and talk to a group of parents, I would shake uncontrollably. My clothes were big and baggy, I didn't take care of myself, I didn't even look in the mirror. I was almost a hermit. I went to work, I raised my kids, and all my interests were just—almost like a teenager in his bedroom, listening to music, in my own head." A friend from college, Matthew Kalloor, remembers Randy driving him around Oklahoma City in his mother's BMW convertible during this time, when Kalloor was struggling with his own marital collapse. At one point, seemingly out of nowhere, Randy turned to him and asked, "Should we just drive to New York City and just ditch all of this?"
A couple of years later, at the age of 27, while Randy was standing alone in the kitchen on a Saturday morning, something snapped. "I'm gay," he heard himself blurt. He stood there for a while, letting the sounds of the words ricochet around the room, both terrified and thrilled by them. And then he said it again, louder this time: "I'm gay!" Instantly, the air seemed more oxygenated, the colors of the room more vivid; his face was flushed and vibrant. The sensation lasted for two days, he says, during which he felt as if he were "walking in my skin for the very first time." On the third day, however, the same reality that had smothered his uncle Ronnie began to tighten its choke hold on Randy: He was a husband, a father, a member of one of the most lionized families in American Christianity. And, as only he and the kitchen walls knew, he was gay.
"God made the female breast, young man. What's wrong with you handling it, fondling it?" This is Oral Roberts, from an audio recording of a sermon—or, rather, a disquisition on human sexuality that's by turns hilarious and disturbing—thought to be from the mid-1980s. Homosexuality was never a regular punching bag for Oral the way it was for later televangelists like Falwell and Robertson, who seized on gay rights for political and culture-war firepower. But in this speech, Oral let it rip. "When it comes to homosexuality, it's not only wild, it is insane!" he roared. "And the heat becomes so intense, the sexual heat becomes so intense, the male organ doesn't want the vagina of the woman, but to turn that person over and to enter into the rear where the poison comes out, and it keeps coming out until they develop AIDS with no immunity against disease, and they D-I-E—they die!"
Even today, Randy doesn't know what to make of this recording. Honed by years as an itinerant preacher and then by decades on television, his grandfather was a lucid and silky orator who wasn't prone to rambling—certainly not to this sort of bizarro maundering. (The weirdest moment might be when Oral goes into character as a beer-guzzling horndog: "I go to church, too, but, uh, you know, it didn't make me queer. Well, I wouldn't buy that 100 percent. Um, please erase that from the tape, uh, I didn't—let's edit that out, will you?") But the note of terror in his grandfather's speech ("they die!") makes poignant sense to Randy. "I think he was convinced that homosexuality killed his son," he says. "Some evangelicals see it as a spirit or a demon of homosexuality that invades you, that it's an almost personified thing that will completely strangle and kill you. Not even so much as a choice, but something you give in to, something that can afflict anybody."
By the time Randy came out to himself in the kitchen, another Roberts—besides his late uncle—had been outed. This was his brother, Stephen, who says their father—Ron Potts, a licensed minister—"figured it out" after going through his drawers while visiting him during his time in the Air Force. The family reaction, he says, "was pretty harsh. I felt ostracized in a way I'd never felt." But Randy's coming-out, Stephen notes, truly caused a schism. For one thing, Randy had a wife and three small children. For another thing, though, Randy had always aligned himself more closely—if ambivalently—with the Roberts family. According to Randy, when Robyn told his parents he was gay, during some of the darkest days of their long, often bitter divorce, communication trailed off. "I never had the classic 'Sit down, Mom and Dad—I'm gay' coming-out moment," he says. "I don't think the word gay has ever been spoken. They'd call it my 'lifestyle.'"
Randy felt that his parents, metaphorically at least, swiftly changed the locks. In 2005, when Munna died, the brothers were denied entrance to the graveside funeral by an armed security guard. Randy said to him, "That's my grandmother inside the coffin." The guard replied, "I know who you are, and you're not on the list." "I hadn't seen that coming," Randy says. "I had to hold on to people, I was crying so hard." Four years later, when Oral died, Randy heard the news on the radio. He found his way into the massive public memorial service on the ORU campus—Stephen, scarred by his experience at Munna's funeral, didn't attend—where his mother delivered a eulogy. "She's giving her speech about her father and then looks out in the audience and sees me," Randy recalls. "She didn't even know if I was there or not, but she saw me and lost it. Just went off and started saying, 'There are people who will tell you you won't go to hell for evil acts, and I just want everybody to know that you will.' Four thousand people were looking at their shoes, and it was really uncomfortable. My mom's telling me from the stage that I'm going to hell."
After his grandfather's funeral, Randy, wounded, looked for a way to channel his feelings. A little less than a year later, he decided to dip into Oral's old playbook. He filmed a monologue—a sermon, really—for the It Gets Better Project, a video series launched by the author and newspaper columnist Dan Savage that aims to give hope to troubled gay teens. It's a searing, uncomfortable, and potent speech—ostensibly a letter to his late uncle Ronnie—in which Randy displays many of the same oratorical skills that brought his grandfather a worldwide following. (Unspoken, however, is what might be the most essential line of the address, which appears onscreen at the end of the video: "Falling in love will not send you to hell.") Soon after, he began speaking in churches, sometimes with a bodyguard in tow, and now, with The Gay Agenda, he's about to barnstorm the country in much the same way his grandfather did in the 1940s—albeit with a different message. "Coming out as a Roberts kind of forced me to face up to my past," he says. "Hopefully I'm reversing some of the legacy left for gay people like me."
"It's obvious how much happier he is with his life right now," says Stephen, a sentiment echoed by friends. With an inadvertent pun, his college buddy Kalloor says Randy's "personality has come out." He has also taken up freelance food writing and is working on a book about homosexuality and the Evangelical community. His children are now 9, 11, and 12 years old, and he shares custody of them in Dallas; his relationship with his ex-wife, he says, is a functional co-parenting one. After about a year of dating Keaton Johnson, a student in social work at El Centro College who's 10 years his junior, he recently proposed; the two are planning to marry in New York City in May. As for the Roberts family, he's broken off all contact with his father. His mother, he says, has left voice-mail messages asking why he's "dragging the family name through the mud." Still, he hasn't given up on reconciling. "I don't think she hates me," he says. "She's convinced I've chosen a path to hell. It's an ideology that's consumed her, and you can get past those things. But, you know, I'm not giving much either." He lets out a melancholy chuckle, then takes a sip of coffee and frowns. "I'm not saying, 'Well, I'm not going to be gay.' I tried that. For 11 years I was married. I tried pretty hard." In November, Roberta Potts published a memoir titled My Dad, Oral Roberts. There's just one passing mention of Randy, about a good report card he once brought home. Stephen goes unmentioned. (Roberta Potts declined to comment for this article.)
Last summer, after giving a speech in a Tulsa church, Randy made a side trip with Keaton to Oral Roberts University, his former backyard. "I don't have a family home to return to," he says, "and I wanted to show Keaton my family heritage." Specifically, he wanted to show him the 200-foot-tall Prayer Tower at the center of campus—a futuristic glass-and-steel needle with a giant disc and spindle in its center, to approximate the cross, and a gas flame burning constantly at its tip. It was there, in 1987, when Randy was 12, that Oral held a vigil after announcing, in his most audacious fund-raising scheme, that unless he raised $8 million, God would "call me home." Arriving with Keaton, Randy was certain he would be denied entrance; an article about him and his gay activism had appeared in a Tulsa paper that morning. Roaming the campus—describing to Keaton the royal thrill he'd experienced as a boy when the key in his pocket could open every door, when he'd explore all the secret entrances his grandfather had commissioned in order to slip in and out of buildings unnoticed—he kept his gaze trained downward, afraid of being recognized and ejected, fearful of that awkward, ridiculous moment when he'd be told he wasn't welcome anymore in the last remaining piece of his grandfather's great empire. "And all because I'm gay," he says. "Not for any other reason. For that single reason. It just seems—silly is the right word. It's a lot of fuss for not really much. It's sad to lose the entire community you grew up in just because you fell in love with a guy." But on that day, the undergrad manning the entrance to the tower glanced at his ID and, without hesitation, waved him back home into his grandfather's kingdom.
Oral was never a major presence in Randy's early life. "It's safe to say I couldn't stand him as a kid," he says. "The few times he did talk to me, it was to order me around." But Oral's legacy has grown larger and larger in his mind since he came out. With his three children, he visited Oral in 2009, several months before the family patriarch died at the age of 91. Oral knew Randy was gay but was welcoming anyway, signing a copy of his latest book for the great-grandchildren and giving each of them a $20 bill. At the end of the hour-long visit, the old preacher clasped Randy's hands and uttered his characteristic tagline: "Son, something good is going to happen to you!"
Two years later, after one of Randy's church appearances, he noticed a man in his sixties lingering at the back of a line of well-wishers, dropping in and out of the line. "I had to go to the restroom," he says, "and when I came out he was waiting for me." The man said he'd faithfully mailed his allowance to Oral Roberts' ministry when he was 6. Randy laughed. And then, he says, the man "just started bawling and wrapped his arms around me and said, 'Thank you for openly saying you're gay.' I tried to talk to him, I wanted to ask if he was gay, but he just continued to cry and then kind of ran away. It's an amazing thing that I know is a lot bigger than me. I'm just the guy who's Oral Roberts' gay grandson, and I don't even think it matters what I say a lot of the time. It's just the fact that I'm up there, gay and open about it and saying it's okay—it's just this huge release." When he's asked whether he sees any parallels between his healing work and that of his grandfather, he says it's a comparison he resisted for a while. But still, he says, in moments like this one, he can't help but think: "Wow. This is what Oral did."