“Out of Ohio” is our interview series featuring notable LGBTQ+ individuals born and raised in Ohio who are now out in the wider world using their voice and talents to make a difference.
Terry Ray is the very definition of a multihyphenate.
The actor-screenwriter-playwright-producer is a familiar fixture in Hollywood, from creating (and starring in!) the first original gay sitcom airing on a gay network, to penning (and also starring in!) a hit play that has toured the country to rave reviews, to one of the most iconic (and gay) appearances in game show history.
But Terry Ray’s path to the entertainment industry didn’t start in California; his roots are firmly planted right here in the Buckeye State. We spoke with Ray about early life in Ohio, his brief stint in seminary, and how his Midwest upbringing changes how he sees the world.
Give us the Ohio backstory. Where did you grow up?
I was born in Columbus and then spent my first nine years in Mount Sterling, Ohio, a tiny town in Madison County. Then I moved to Grove City, a suburb of Columbus which is where I went to high school. That’s where my mom still lives and what I would call my hometown. I spent my first year of college at Ohio State in their theater department. And then, get this, I didn’t want to be gay. So I decided to go to seminary for a year in Cincinnati. That totally cured me from being gay until I backslid about three weeks later. Then I went to University of Cincinnati conservatory and that’s where I graduated from.
How would you describe growing up gay in Ohio?
This was a few years ago, and when you couldn’t be gay and survive. I couldn’t hide that I was gay. I’m just that gay. So I got teased by a lot of people who didn’t really know me. I got called “fairy gay” <laughs> and they made it sound like “Terry Ray” so I would turn my head and everybody would laugh.
Was acting always the dream?
Acting was always the dream. I never let go of that. Even in seminary, I did acting. I toured in a group that did shows.
Wasn’t there a Patricia Heaton connection somewhere in that Ohio acting background?
Yes! My freshman year at Ohio State I auditioned for shows not really knowing that freshmen didn’t get cast in plays. Well, the second day, there was an audition for a musical and I got cast. Patricia Heaton was a grad student, and we got to act together in a show called Gold Dust. It was an adaptation of Molière’s The Miser, which was turned into a Western musical barroom thing. I played a Chinese cook in the Old West who dressed up like a Native American. So that was some layers of makeup. It was a bit like Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Is there an Ohio sensibility that you bring with you into the world?
Definitely. Ohio gave me that middle America sensibility to appreciate things. When I went to LA, I could drive to the ocean. I was so grateful for everything I was seeing. There were famous people and big landmarks. I dreamed of it all growing up in Ohio. I’m thankful that I appreciate what I have experienced and I think having Ohio rooted in me gave me that appreciation.
On behalf of the Ohio Board of Tourism, where should visitors check out?
I never had a car when I was in Ohio, so I didn’t get to visit a lot of tourism places in Ohio. But I remember Old Man Cave, and I thought that was cool. Cincinnati was a great city. Cedar Point and King’s Island were very fun. I also did a big show called Trumpet in the Land. It’s been going on for 50 years in an amphitheater in Amish Country. It’s the true story of Native Americans in Ohio who were friendly to American Revolution war soldiers but then got massacred. It’s not a happy ending, but it takes place a beautiful, beautiful area of Ohio.
What different mindset do you find yourself in when you’re back in Ohio?
I feel like I’m home. I relax when I’m in Ohio. It’s just a comfort. I don’t have people in California who remember me with hair. But in Ohio, they remember that I used to have hair. Those people are few and far between, so I embrace them. I feel very comfortable when I go back to Ohio.
But that wasn’t always the case. I was nervous to go back for a [high school]reunion. When I did, I couldn’t believe how friendly, accepting and loving everyone was with me returning as an openly gay man. It’s a large but close class and we have reunions every five years. Since I summoned up the gumption to go to the 20th I haven’t missed one. This change in attitude is one of the inspirations for my play ELECTRICITY which I set in Chillicothe, Ohio and takes place over the course of 4 high school reunions (from 1983 to 2013). Whatever is happening in Ohio about acceptance I’m very much loving and have been a benefactor of that change. Hopefully I’ve passed that along in my play.
What advice do you have for young LGBTQ+ Ohioans dreaming of Hollywood?
Embrace yourself. Literally I could not be gay growing up back then in Ohio. But now you can absolutely be yourself and not hide. Be true to yourself.