Growing up in a Mormon house with five athletic brothers and a football coach father taught Rory Ray lessons about himself, sports and family. It also unwittingly helped prepare him for his latest gig as a member of an ensemble cast on the newest entrant into reality television.
This offering, though, provides a new twist: six members of the gay basketball team Rock Dogs living together in a San Francisco loft in the weeks leading up to the National Gay Basketball Association championships. Reality television has done drama, fashion, real estate, comedy and design, among others. But Logo’s “Shirts & Skins” ventures into the locker-room with a candid look at an amateur basketball team that can dribble and dunk with skill yet also happens to have a roster full of gay men.
Ray (photo), a 6-foot-3-inch forward, finds himself in the middle of the mix. He joined the Rock Dogs in 2002 while living in San Francisco and continues to play with the team despite a move to New York City last year. He joined five others in the loft for more than three weeks as the team prepared for the tournament earlier this year.
What followed was a mix of serious and fun, drama and deeper understanding. There’s plenty of skin, Ray included, though it seems fitting given the athletic focus of the show. But there’s also plenty of substance, including an intense debate between Ray and Jamel Lewis that begins in the first episode of the show when Jamel tells his housemates that being gay is a choice. Former NBA player John Amaechi, who came out as gay in 2007, helps mediate, one of a handful of big-name appearances in the series that also includes Sheryl Swoopes, who plays for the Seattle Storm and came out in 2005.
Ray balanced his work as a web developer and training with the team during the show’s taping before returning to New York and his boyfriend of nearly a year. He’s branched out from basketball, no doubt channeling the athletic prowess of his brothers, and taken up flag football, last year being named Most Valuable Player of the New York Gay Football League and to the all-offensive team at Gay Bowl VII. He’ll compete on the Los Angeles Motion in Gay Bowl VIII next month in Salt Lake City. Ray and other teammates will also be blogging during the run of the six-episode series on Logo.
Q: How did “Shirts & Skins” come about?
A: A guy that used to play with our team is in TV. He recognized the unique stories on the guys on our team and thought this would be a really powerful documentary TV show and hopefully would help other people that could be struggling with being gay and playing sports. He pitched it for a couple of years to Logo and other networks and finally, they decided they wanted to run it.
Q: What’s your take on the show?
A: I think it is amazing what they are able to capture. They put six very different guys in a house and said do whatever you are going to do. Pretty much whatever happened has happened. You can see in the first two episodes that there are a lot of things of depth and substantial issues that are being discussed and talked about. I don’t think anyone expected it to be any of that. I think they got more than they bargained for – in a good way. They saw some of the things that happened, that situation between Jamel and I – that happened within us being in the house after five minutes. There is a lot more to talk about here than Britney Spears and Beyoncé.
Q: Had the debate with Jamel (photo) surfaced in the past?
A: Jamel is incredibly flamboyant and incredibly out there and silly. He has to dominate the situation and be the center of attention and we all knew that. When we came into the filming, he was walking around in conservative clothes and he sat down reading a bible. I called him out and asked him what is going on and why he’s walking around in a house with six gay guys reading a bible. It got heated a lot more than it showed. You know in your heart it is not a choice and we have a medium in the TV show and you are fueling the anti gay rhetoric. This is not acceptable. There are generations of people who struggled before us so we could have his opportunity.
Q: John Amaechi appears in the series as a mentor both on and off the court. What was the reaction to his taking part?
A: Fundamentally, it was amazing because the guy has gone through a lot and played sports at an incredibly high level. He has experienced things many of us could never have imagined. Some of us were torn between being really excited at having him there and to listen to his advices and some of the guys felt like he was a paid speaker and staged. He offered perspective that I couldn’t have experienced. I think it was really helpful and it showed a lot of guys that you can be whatever you want to be, just believe in yourself. It took someone of his stature to show them that.
Q: How was it living in that loft with five teammates?
A: It was the most intense three weeks of my life. It was amazing and also incredibly challenging. I had to work all of the time. Most of the guys don’t have to work, so they were up late. I had to get up early and work and have some space to get my job done. Not only were we practicing every day and having events, I had to work. It was tough to do it on two or three hours of sleep a night for a month. It was a great bonding experience. In terms of team building, it was great. It was a challenge for me personally because of my job responsibilities. It was intense, in a word.
Q: What’s it like to grow up in a Mormon house with five brothers?
A: Those are my best friends. We talk every day. My brothers—we’re really close. When I was coming out, I was in college. I let them know and said, deal with it or don’t, pretty much. For my family, it wasn’t an option for them not to deal with it. We’ve remained close.
My parents have really come a long way in opening heir minds. I’ve been able to put a face to something they couldn’t understand or relate. Now they have their son that is gay. I think it has helped my family grow a lot. I was terrified they would disown me. I was really fortunate, I think. My dad started crying and said, “I don’t understand but I still love you and I will try.” Now it is 10 years later and we talk politics on the phone all of the time.
Q: Have your parents seen the show?
A: They haven’t seen it. They are really excited about it, but they haven’t seen it. My brothers, I’ve always idolized them. They are amazingly good athletes. I always wanted to be like them. My family, in my house, sports rules. That’s what everything was about. I wasn’t into it as much and I never thought I made my dad proud and as a result we didn’t get along very well. As an adult, finding the Rock Dogs and gay basketball and in the last few years I’ve done some really great things in football. So as an adult, I’ve finally felt like I’ve been able to make my dad proud. It’s a tough thing, it’s hard to grow up and never feel like I met up with what he expected of me. That’s not the reality of it, but that’s what I thought. Gay sports and the accomplishments I’ve had with it have really helped me deal. It wasn’t until I was 29 or 30 that I felt like I made my dad proud. But I came to find out that he was always proud of me.
Q: Do you expect “Shirts & Skins” will change anything for you?
A: I don’t expect a lot of change for me. I‘m kind of shy when it comes to people approaching me. I’m not a career TV person, a career actor or model. It was an amazing experience I’ve had, but I’m going to go on being a web developer and traveling and doing the things I have in my life. I hope it doesn’t change me too much. If something comes out of this where people are really inspired and connect with what we’ve gone through and what we’ve done, if there is any change in my life, hopefully it will be able to just to show people that other people have gone through those struggles and are still going through them. Each of the guys on the team will have a different reaction to the attention and the publicity.
Q: Were you concerned about going shirtless on the show?
A: I’m shy of the attention and get embarrassed. In a public situation, me and my friends walk outside without shirts and we don’t have a problem with that. I’ve worked hard for that. I am modest, not shy, and probably more modest than the other guys. I shouldn’t be afraid to show it. I tend to be more on the shy side on the team, but I work very hard to be in shape and fit. If it’s 95 degrees outside, I don’t mind taking my shirt off. I wouldn’t take my shirt off for the sake of getting attention. All of us – it’s nice when someone recognizes that you’re attractive. I am not different than anyone else.
“Shirts & Skins” airs Monday at 10 p.m. on Logo beginning Sept. 15. The show also airs online.