By Shirley Knight
“Being closeted is a lot like being on stage all the time,” Randy Roberts Potts says. “You’re always trying to play a role that you’re not, and you’re always nervous that someone will see through the wig.” Potts was raised in a very prominent and active Christian community in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is the grandson of the pioneering televangelist, faith healer, and fundraiser Oral Roberts.
“When I was in my 20s and closeted, I wore baggy clothes and huge Coke-bottle glasses, and I didn’t really take care of myself,” Potts says. “I didn’t want any sort of attention.” He says he used to stutter and shake when he had to do any sort of public speaking. “Coming out allowed me to be comfortable in my own body. It changed me dramatically,” he says. Now he is a confident featured speaker, and he no longer hides behind an asexual persona.
Like many people, his 27th year was “monumental.” That’s when he came out to himself and began attending counseling. He’d married at age 20, telling himself and his wife that his lack of sexual attraction to women was because he was a good Christian. He tried to live up to expectations. His wife became a doctor, and they had three children. “It felt pretty bleak to realize you’re gay, but you’re married and you love your kids, and you don’t really know what to do about it,” he says. “I didn’t feel like there was a good option for me. I wasn’t religious any more, but I still had this fear that gay people went to hell,” he continues.
His message to people in similar circumstances is: “Don’t go through this alone. Find resources. Watch videos. Join groups. Make contact. There’s so much available—you don’t have to go through being LGBT alone.” Potts says his conversations with other gay people helped him see that a good future was possible.
One of the issues Potts faced is that he was sexually abused in his childhood by a family member, and he had to realize that his attraction to men was separate from, and not a product of, the abuse. “Therapy is really important,” he says, “and talking about it openly to people who care about you is really important, because often the worst thing about sexual abuse is the shame you feel. You shouldn’t suffer through something like that alone.”
Potts first came out publicly in a video for the “It Gets Better” project in which he honored his gay uncle, Ronald Roberts, who committed suicide in 1982. By all accounts, Ronald was a brilliant intellectual who taught English, Russian, and Chinese. Ronald’s interest in higher learning helped inspire the founding of Oral Roberts University.
“I was really terrified to talk about my relationship with the Roberts family,” Potts says. “I got messages from family that I was dragging the Roberts name through the mud and that I was being selfish and horrible. I’ve been disinherited by my family,” Potts continues, “and I regard myself as not really a member of the family any more—and that’s okay.”
Potts’ mother, Roberta, who was Oral Roberts’ youngest daughter, is an attorney in Tulsa and still very active in the evangelical community. Her only other child, Potts’ brother, is also gay. Although Randy Potts describes himself as “a very private person” who disliked the public life surrounding his family when he was growing up, he says he is very committed to being open about his life. “I know it would have helped me to hear people like me when I was closeted,” he says.
After 11 years of marriage, Potts went through a divorce and prevailed in a custody battle to maintain joint custody of his children. After all he has been through, one way Potts releases anger and pain is by focusing on art, which he finds cathartic. Potts is a writer and a photographer, and in the fall of 2016 he will release a 300-piece photo essay in which he explores past relationships. “I’ve gone back and re-read a lot of my grandfather’s sermons,” he says. “I’ve read about his life. I’ve visited the compound. I’ve tried finding things I could actually appreciate about Oral Roberts, and I have. It’s been hard, but I have.” The project is called The Bible Went Down with the Birdie Jean and will be on Instagram with the handle @thebirdiejean beginning in September.
Potts says he’s coming to accept his role as a spokesperson, and the idea that his message can foster healing, even though he’s had an aversion to the word healing “because of the association with faith healers. So many times when I would go around the country speaking,” Potts says, “men—sometimes women, but mostly gay men—would wait in line to talk to me, and then hold me and just start bawling, and I knew it wasn’t about me. They had grown up with all this fear inspired by people like my grandfather, and I know that just me standing up and saying I’m gay was enough to let people let go of some of that hurt.”
One of the most common questions Potts gets is from people who feel rejected by the church of their youth but who still want a spiritual connection. “There are all kinds of churches that LGBT people can go to now that are accepting,” Potts says. He mentions the Metropolitan Community Church, “a whole denomination that is LGBT-affirming. But beyond them,” he continues, “there are so many congregations in America that are becoming gay-affirming. Maybe the entire denomination isn’t, necessarily, but the local church might be.” Another resource he recommends is the Gay Christian Network, where people can chat with someone who is LGBT.
At the time he was coming out, Potts said he “had too much baggage with Christianity to accept it,” so he started going to a Buddhist temple and found messages about being mindful without the fear he’d experienced in his youth. “Probably if I’m anything, I’m Unitarian,” he says. “When I do actually spontaneously pray, it’s always when I’m almost so happy I can’t contain it,” he adds.
Potts attended the University of Oklahoma where he studied literature, languages, and Eastern philosophy. Because of his sheltered upbringing, he says he felt culturally isolated back then. “I might as well have been from a different country,” he says. “People would ask me about popular bands, and I wouldn’t have a clue. I’d never even heard the name. In college, I spent a lot of time trying to catch up,” he adds. “For about five years I worked really hard to not be so awkward socially.”
When he left for college at age 18, he was already at odds with his parents and rarely went home to visit. Even though he was on his own for the first time, he says, “I really didn’t go that crazy in college. For me, being crazy was what most people would think of as normal—like having one beer.”
Today Potts is married to a man, has 50/50 custody of his three children, and lives in a suburb of Dallas. Regarding politics, he says, “We always have to vote. As a minority, we have an obligation to represent ourselves and represent our rights and vote for the people who respect us the most as people. No one else is going to look out for us if we don’t initiate that.”
Potts will be in Houston on July 9 and 10 to participate in events with Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). He says, “PFLAG is my favorite LGBT organization. You can find PFLAG volunteers on the ground in almost every city in America. The parents are concerned about their kids, so they’ve already done the legwork looking for resources. No matter how small a town it is, there’s probably a PFLAG mom or dad out there. It’s an important organization in isolated communities because those people care, and they are really invested in those communities. If you really want to affect a local community,” Potts adds, “to me, PFLAG is the best way to go.”
Shirley Knight is the founder of AwakeNow.org.