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By ANDREA POTEET
In more than five decades as one of the country’s best-known preachers, famed televangelist Oral Roberts spread his trademark message: “something good is going to happen to you.”
But for his grandson, Randy Roberts Potts, the road to that happiness took years of depression, family estrangement and finally self acceptance.
“It was very difficult at first for several years,” Potts, 37, says in his whisper-soft voice. “But things eventually evened out and life these days is really good.”
Coming out is rarely a pain-free process, but for Potts, who was raised on a compound in Oklahoma with Roberts and other family members, it meant identifying himself as part of a group his grandfather had openly shunned.
“I knew I was attracted to other boys instead of girls at age 7 or so,” Potts said, “but I learned early on from my family and my church that it was horrible. It was a long, long process and I didn’t actually come out until I was 31, after I was married for 11 years and had children.”
Roberts’ legacy is a complicated issue for Potts, who sees positive and negative aspects of his grandfather’s message and who left organized religion at age 18. Though homophobia was never the cornerstone of Roberts’ sermons, which also included aspects of faith healing and which culminated in the building of Oral Roberts University in 1963, it was certainly present in and outside of the church, Potts says. One of Roberts’ sons, Ronald, committed suicide after being court-ordered into a drug rehab center following his coming out.
“A lot of people have told me that their parents took their anti-gay attitude from him,” Potts said. “In that sense his legacy has not been the greatest. In other ways he was very positive, he tried to focus people on love, he wanted their lives to be good. He had a very positive aspect to his ministry and I think it did help a lot of people.”
His coming-out process led to estrangement from many of his family members and a custody battle for his two children, which he won. Though battling with his family was hard, he said it gave him the freedom he needed to write publicly about his complicated relationship with his grandfather, after hashing it out in diary entries for ten years.
“I think when my grandfather passed (in 2009) and my grandmother passed (after a fall in 2005) and my family came out very strongly against me being gay, it sort of gave me permission to consider publishing some of that,” Potts, a former English teacher, said. “I felt like ‘well, I don’t have a family to lose anymore and my grandparents are gone and I don’t have to worry about hurting their feelings, so I can write freely.'”
Now, Potts shares his story in articles for The Washington Post and This Land Press, in the book version of Dan Savage’s video collection “It Gets Better,” and in speaking events throughout the country, primarily in churches in conservative areas. He is set to visit First United Methodist Church in Ann Arbor March 10, for a chat sponsored by Rainbow Crossing.
“I really would like to encourage especially LGBT youth, that even though it is difficult to come out, things can get better, they can have a good life and they can live any life they want to,” Potts said. “I want there to be in place what there wasn’t for me, or say my uncle, the possibility of hoping for a better world.”
He also strives to do that through activism, like his current project, the Gay Agenda, which sets a local gay couple in a conservative town in a vacant storefront to live their daily lives- from morning cereal to evening television – in front of passersby. The exhibit, designed to give conservatives a visual of how nonthreatening gay couples really are, has already kicked off in Oklahoma City and is scheduled for stops across the country.
“When you look inside, it will be very boring to watch,” Potts says. “If you watch people hanging out at home, it’s not very interesting.”
Potts said the reaction so far has been positive, though planned protests from religious groups were thwarted by 17-degree weather. He said he wants to eventually work his way into smaller conservative cities, but has fears about the participants’ safety.
At each stop, though, Potts reaches out to area pastors in a letter asking to meet them and discuss the project.
So far, he has had no responses.
“It seems to me, pastors of churches who are not gay friendly, they really don’t know what to do with me,” Potts says. “It’s not an angry response, just none. I’ll keep sending them and see what happens.”
Randy Roberts Potts
Saturday, March 10
First United Methodist Church of Ann Arbor, 120 South State Street, Ann Arbor, Randy Roberts Potts 5 p.m, dinner 6:15 p.m. (additional charge*) MUSE Cinncinati’s Women’s Choir 7:30 p.m.
Co-sponsored by FUMC Music & Liturgical Arts Ministries and Rainbow Crossing
*Dinner tickets should be purchased ahead of time. Regular tickets $15, Seniors $10, children 12 and under $8
Sunday, March 11
Mr. Potts will also speak on Sunday at 9:30 and 11:15 a.m. at the Church.
Church phone number: 734-662-4536