A Televangelists’s Legacy: An Interview with Randy Roberts Potts, Part 1
Randy Roberts Potts is the grandson of Oral Roberts, a televangelist from Tulsa who was famous for many reasons, not the least of which were his conservative values and faith healing. Randy grew up carrying the Roberts name, married at age 20, had three children, and came out at age 30. His perspective is broad and his experiences are deep. Recently, Andrew’s Roundtable brought Randy to Minnesota to speak to various audiences about growing up as Oral Roberts’ grandson, the loss of his gay uncle, Ronnie, and what it’s like to be out of the closet as an adult. I was able to interview Randy at All God’s Children Metropolitan Community Church in Minneapolis and appreciated most his discussion about how to reconcile family, faith, and sexuality. Here is the first part of the interview, the rest of which can be read online next week.
Can you tell us about your background? Where you grew up?
I was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and even when my mother was in labor with me, my grandfather was worried about putting his mark, per se, on me because he didn’t have a male grandson, yet, with the Roberts name. So, I was supposed to be named after my father and so he came to my mother while she was in labor and kept saying, “I want his middle name to be Roberts.” And she said, “No.” She said no and she said no until finally he offered her $1000 and [laughs] she took it. And she just pulled “Randy” out of the air, so my real name is Randy Roberts Potts since he insisted on it. So, I was born already to someone who really liked his name and wanted his legacy to keep going.
Really, I was born into the decline of Oral’s ministry. He was really big in the Fifties and Sixties, and early-Seventies, but from that point on, the donations started to fall off a bit and he started to be seen as more of a quack.
I grew up on the Oral Roberts Compound in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was like a 3-acre piece of land with a double-stockade fence with electricity and everything—a little guard hut—it was very intense just to drive to our house. There were three houses there and cameras everywhere. It was pretty crazy.
Who else lived there?
There was my grandfather’s house with my grandmother, our house, and my uncle’s house and that was it. Kind of a weird, campus-like setting. All quiet with little squirrels. Grass…it was really beautiful.
Very pastoral, except for the armed guards, huh?
Yeah, it was really strange. One time when I was a kid, I used to dress up in this little karate outfit and sneak around the compound and try to get away from the cameras. I had a ski mask on just for fun—I was eight or nine—and I came out from behind a tree and there was a security guard with a gun pulled on me. And, of course, I whip off the mask and say, “I’m Randy!” He felt bad but that was just part of what it was like to live on the compound.
Where did you go to school? Were you home-schooled?
I was home-schooled for a year and I also went to public school…and I went for a few years to a Christian school, too. At the Christian school we were told that we were like the Army of the Lord; it was very religious with chapel a couple of times a week.
I went to a public high school. It was a weird transition. I liked it a lot better, it was kind of nice to get away from the uniforms and that kind of stuff. So I liked that.
Did you have any inklings that you’d be coming out later in life?
I knew I was—well, I didn’t call it “gay”—but I knew I liked boys from an early age. But, I also was told that it was really bad and I knew to keep quiet about it, to not tell anybody about it. I felt like it was this bad thing in me that I had to push down. So, that’s what I did. And, I didn’t call myself “gay” in my head or anything. And then I went to college and I met my best friend. My best friend was this beautiful lady. We were just inseparable. We starting dating and I told her early on, “Well, you should know that I have these attractions to men. I think they’re wrong, but I have them.” She said that was fine, that we could get past that and [intake of breath] so we did.
So we got married and had kids. I was married at age 20 so really, in a lot of ways, we ended up having a regular divorce—we had five years of fighting, we couldn’t really get along, we probably would’ve gotten divorced anyway. It’s obviously a big complication that in my twenties I realized that I’m just gay. It’s not going away and I can’t really function in this marriage. So, that was a lot of years of struggle…of figuring out what to do. For a few years, I was suicidal in the sense that I just wanted to die. I knew I was gay, I knew I was married. I had these great kids and I felt like there were no good options. I didn’t want to get divorced, have two homes, and so I just felt stuck.
Who did you rely on in those times? Did you have anyone to turn to for support?
I didn’t. Looking back, I know I had friends I could have gone to but I didn’t want to tell them “I’m gay.” I didn’t know what they’d say. I think they would’ve been fine with it but I didn’t know at the time.
I finally saw a therapist. I had a few friends who I talked to but I mostly stayed on my own with it…which was, I think, a mistake. When you’re suicidal, you should be talking to people…which I wasn’t, for a while.
At this point, would you say you had a steady relationship with God or had you departed from a religious relationship?
It’s gone back and forth. When I was 18- and 19-years old I did. But I saw myself as liberal-thinking with a strong relationship with God. Then, by my late twenties, I didn’t really at all, any more. When I came out, I started going to a Buddhist temple and I loved that–the meditation, and all that kind of thing. And since then, I’ve really gotten to a point that I feel like I’ve gone back to the values that I grew up with…but I don’t really define my spirituality as one particular religion. I haven’t joined a church. I’m definitely very much at peace with where I am and don’t feel like it was horrible that I was raised in a Christian home or anything like that. I’ve really made peace and have a strong spiritual connection but don’t put a label to it.
How does your family react to everything?
Not well. Not well.
I read that at your grandfather’s funeral you weren’t allowed to sit with the family.
I talked to my mother beforehand and she didn’t really want me to be there. I ended up going, of course, and there ended up being a big public ceremony for my grandfather that she spoke at and when she saw me she just kind of lost it. She went on a tangent about how “people will tell you that gay people aren’t going to Hell but they really are” and…it wasn’t a planned thing. It was a gut reaction to seeing me. All the emotions that came up. It was an interesting thing to sit through and hear. She wasn’t saying it out of hate, she’s just terrified. I think a lot of people in her position really are scared that they are going to Hell and to think your son is going to Hell is a scary thing.
(Interview will be continued online next week. Randy speaks about his family’s reaction to his coming out, how Oral Roberts may have been surprisingly introspective on the issue of homosexuality, and how Randy had to come to terms with coming out to be at peace with himself.)