Of all the ironies Randy Potts, grandson of Oral Roberts, lived through, this may be one of the greatest:
“There’s a tremendous power in being an authentic human being, on being honest, according to one’s likes.”
The words are Oral’s own, uttered to his faculty at Oral Roberts University in a chapel service in 1974. In fact, it was about three months before Potts was born, the son of Oral and wife Evelyn’s youngest daughter Roberta. The Roberts family would suffer tragedy more than once: their oldest daughter killed in a plane crash in 1977, and their oldest son, Ronnie, heir to the Roberts kingdom, committed suicide in 1982, six months after coming out to a Los Angeles pastor.
Like his Uncle Ronnie, Potts is gay, and his move to the national spotlight began with an “It Gets Better” video in 2010. The segment begins with an homage to his late uncle, written in white chalk on a blackboard. Ronnie came out to his father, and Potts adds a stark, stand-alone sentence to his narrative, summarizing Oral’s response: “He did not want a gay son.”
Roberts had already founded the university and the Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association, an empire that at one time was worth more than 500 million dollars, in 1974, but Potts would not live in proximity to the famous evangelist until 1983.
“I moved into the compound when I was nine,” Potts remembers. “Everything was new to me then. I remember being on stages all the time.”
Soundstages. Roberts was a pioneer—maybe the pioneer—of the televangelist genre, and his base of operations was Tulsa, Oklahoma. The compound—it really is what the family called it—was a small enclave behind two eight-foot fences, one electrified and one topped with barbed wire.
“Beginning sometime in the late 1960s, random people just started showing up at my grandfather’s house,” Potts said. “He was on television all the time, and the fame attracted people, so he had the compound built adjacent to ORU.”
Potts attended Victory Christian School, a private school in Tulsa affiliated with a church of the same name, from third through eighth grade. He went to Jenks High School, though, and he said he liked the anonymity a school that size provided. It was the first of his non-private-school choices, as the University of Oklahoma is his alma mater.
Growing up, he internalized his grandfather’s vitriolic anti-homosexual harangues, and of his mother’s perspective, he remembers this:
“My mother made it clear to me early on that homosexuals were worse than muderers,” Potts said. “Because: a murderer can murder once and be forgiven, but a homosexual lives in his or her sin daily. I was told at age seven that God hated gay men so much that he burned down entire cities in his wrath.”
The verbiage, while perhaps shocking to some, was so much a part of the Pentecostal or fundamentalist experience growing up that those of us who grew up that way scarcely noticed, unless, like Potts, they were possessed of a growing awareness of something different about themselves. The ability to parse a growing awareness of being gay in a healthy way requires both a healthy, supportive community and an acceptance of homosexuality as a mere benign variation in human sexuality—which is to say, how many people feel about it today. Growing up as Potts did, though, meant that a safe place did not exist, nor did supportive messages.
“I watched as preachers mocked from the pulpit the way gay men walk and talk or girls who thought it would be okay to play sports with the boys,” Potts said. “I understood as a kid that God hated gays and that gay had something to do with me, but often, with fears that loom that large, it’s difficult to look back and know exactly how you felt. As a gay kid in that environment, I lived with it the way Okies live with tornados: God was a disaster for gay people, but most of the time you could rely on the storm hitting someone else.”
The analogy is funny—and not—if you live in Oklahoma. Every storm season we have sparkling examples of bad theology: a survivor on television talking about how she prayed and God made the tornado go the other way. The result, of course, is death and destruction for someone else. Survivor guilt may set in, but there is first the sense of relief, of believing that this time the fingers of God missed me as they raked the landscape.
Potts would remain in the closet until he was 31, although, as reported in The Advocate, he had a kitchen conversation with himself at 27: “I’m gay, I’m gay, I’m gay,” is how it went.
He said he has had two conversations with his family—“the denizens of the compound”—in the eleven years since he came out, and he’s heard from his mother about it only once.
“The only time my mother has ever mentioned me being gay was in a voicemail she left after I made an ‘It Gets Better’ video which went viral on YouTube. She had known for years that I was gay and had never attempted to call and discuss it, but me publicly linking the family name with homosexuality was a bridge too far, and she called to let me know, crying, saying, ‘How could you do this to me?’ I didn’t return that phone call, and in fact, haven’t had her phone number or her address for years.”
Potts said he’s never had a conversation with the compound family about his sexuality. “It never seemed logical,” he said. He has remained close with a brother and maintained contact with several cousins. Potts married once—that’s what you do when you’re gay in fundamentalist churches—but he was up front with his then wife that he was attracted to men.
His latest project is a serial on Instagram (thebirdiejean). It’s both creative and cathartic, a goodbye to nine specific persons or places in his past, a visual and literary farewell to Tulsa, Oklahoma, for sure. The project, called “The Bible Went Down With The Birdie Jean,” is his second serial on Instagram. He did one last year for Virginia Quarterly Review, but this is his own project, and it’s divided into nine “books” of 33 Instagram posts each. By the time he is finished, the Birdie Jean will be book length.
“Through prose, poetry, and 300 photos taken over the last year in Oklahoma, I am eulogizing my evangelical past, which, as an out gay man, I am cut off from,” Potts explained. “Most of my subjects are LGBT; I also shot many photos on the Oral Roberts University campus.”
The name comes from his mother; it was her nickname in college. It was also the name of a ski boat the family owned when Potts was a kid—thus the Birdie Jean going down metaphor. There were actually two boats named Birdie Jean; the family owned them successively not concurrently, so the sixteenth post in each book is a sort of “intermission film,” a separate volume called the Book of Birdie Jean 3. It’s Potts having fun while he exorcises and excises his past.
Our pasts fade, and not just to our own memories. People don’t remember the events or characters that populate our memories, even our traumatic ones. We will see this play out in Oklahoma, too, even with the Murrah Bombing. It’s already fading.
And things are fading for Potts, too. Finding someone who remembers who Oral Roberts was is getting more difficult. Potts said the people who talk to him about his famous grandfather are usually over 35. I talked to him about the damn song, and if you remember the television program, you remember the damn song. It was a Ralph Carmichael creation—I dare not call it a hymn—and I can still hear the strains of its opening bars coming across my grandmother’s television. It’s another of the ironies of Potts’s life.
In 1973, the year before Potts’s birth, my grandmother always had the television tuned to Oral Roberts on Sunday mornings before church. Roberts’s show began with “Something Good is Going to Happen to You,” a pretty awful, but unfortunately catchy song, the lyrics for which I have mercifully forgotten save the titular line.
“If I even hear the words ‘something good,’ the song comes back to me,” Potts said.
The irony, of course, was that most days something good wasn’t going to happen for a young gay man hidden within a fundamentalist compound, nor did his grandfather really want him to live an authentic life. Still, Potts has found peace with himself and with faith. He doesn’t like to discuss it publicly.
’Unitarian’ is probably the easiest way to label me now: I haven’t necessarily rejected the faith of my childhood as much as allowed it to grow into something more…expansive.